(Editor’s note: This article was authored by Gordon and Tom Gibbon of Swedish Medical Center and orginally appeared as an op-ed in the March 26 Seattle Times.)
We have less than a week to take advantage of the most significant opportunity in most of our lifetimes to strengthen our community. March 31 is the end of the initial enrollment period for low-cost health insurance.
We’ve been hearing a lot about the growing gaps in our community – gaps between wealthy and poor, between neighborhoods, between racial and ethnic groups.
King County has some of the healthiest communities in the world, yet there are many who have fallen behind. Our prosperity as a region depends on everyone being able to contribute and reach his or her full potential.
We now have a resource to help shrink those disparities; we have the opportunity for nearly everyone in King County to get affordable health care.
Whether you live in Queen Anne or SeaTac, whether or not you have a job and regardless of what language you speak, the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, provides a critical resource.
Before the new health exchange Washington Healthplanfinder went online in October, there were more than 200,000 uninsured adults in King County. Most had incomes that qualify them for subsidized or free health insurance under the new law.
If awareness and enrollment information can move this group to action, that’s a two-fisted blow against inequities.
First, the ACA gives people access to preventive care and routine medical care that can keep them safe and healthy enough to work and care for their families. Second, it gives them financial security against bankrupting medical bills or other emergency costs that can drain savings in an instant.
If we can do that, we’ll take 16 percent of residents ages 18 to 64 – most of whom are working in the service sector or as laborers, often part time – and raise their standards of living, without taking anything away from everyone else.
To be sure, narrowing the gap in health would require public-health strategies to address chronic diseases and injuries.
But insurance would at least provide people with more affordable access to care.
Right now, King County has some of the greatest disparities in health coverage in the country.
For example, adults in South King County cities such as Des Moines or Federal Way are seven to eight times more likely to be uninsured than adults in Mercer Island or Sammamish. Latinos are nearly four times as likely and African Americans more than twice as likely to be uninsured as whites.
If most uninsured people who qualify do enroll in the exchange, we could make a dramatic difference in health coverage. The rate of uninsurance in much of South King County could decrease from 30 percent to 10 percent.
The key is to spread the word. Survey results show that many of the uninsured remain unaware of their eligibility for a new type of affordable insurance. And they’re unaware that a deadline looms. The end of the first open enrollment period for private health plans is March 31.
The next open enrollment period for subsidized plans is in the fall, although enrollment in Apple Health, the state’s Medicaid program, continues all year.
As community leaders who are tasked by King County Executive Dow Constantine with championing health-insurance enrollment, we ask that you tell your family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, employees and others that coverage is available now and is more affordable than you think.
Gordon McHenry Jr., President & CEO of Solid Ground, and Tom Gibbon of Swedish Medical Center, co-chair the Cover King County Leadership Circle and are appointed by the King County Executive.