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Op-ed: Preserve coverage to protect the health of Montanans

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By Dick Brown

From food recalls to Zika, healthcare issues were among the most popular online searches in 2016. Montanans increased their knowledge of antibiotic resistant “superbugs,” contributed to the social media firestorm following a spike in the cost of Epi-Pens, and advanced the global effort to erase the stigma of mental illness and improve access to suicide prevention and addiction services.

Montanans care about their health and the health of their communities. The Montana Hospital Association continues to advance these attributes with its commitment to ensuring every Montanan has access to healthcare and healthcare coverage in the New Year.

The Montana Legislature and Congress have the privilege of adopting public policy solutions that have a direct impact on improving the lives of their neighbors. As our elected leaders move forward with the debate over the future of the Affordable Care Act, it is imperative that they take into consideration the impact of their actions on the millions of Americans who have benefitted from the monumental health law.

The ACA enabled 2.2 million new customers and 6.6 million returning customers to obtain coverage through the health insurance exchange during the 2016 open enrollment period. More than 52,000 Montanans selected a plan for coverage starting Jan. 1, 2017. In addition, more than 60,000 Montanans have obtained coverage through Medicaid. This coverage expansion has contributed to a drop in the uninsured rate in our state from about 20 percent in 2012 (one of the highest in the nation) to 7.4 percent in 2016.

The impact of the coverage expansion on individual lives is undeniable. Newly insured Montanans now have improved access to primary care providers. Many are benefitting from preventive health measures and are addressing previously unmet medical needs, including chronic conditions that cripple their ability to work.

Progress made in our communities demonstrates that health coverage is key to ensuring Montanans have access to the care they need. MHA believes healthier communities result in a more viable economy, a more efficient and effective healthcare delivery system and, over time, will lead to a long-term slowdown in healthcare spending growth.

If Congress decides to reconsider the ACA and move forward with strategies to eliminate health coverage gains or healthcare access, rural and frontier America may lose more than its local safety-net services.

Our communities already face challenges brought on by an aging population, a higher percentage of low-income residents and persistent shortages of physicians and other healthcare professionals. Recent history has shown that a lack of health coverage for rural residents and support for rural healthcare providers can exacerbate these threats and also lead to a loss in jobs. Eventually, this could lead to boards on the windows of local businesses and homes.

The Montana Legislature and Congress must ensure the number of Montanans covered by some insurance plan does not diminish under efforts to repeal and/or replace the ACA. MHA’s members are community-driven organizations whose mission is to serve the healthcare needs of their friends and neighbors. We ask our elected leaders to ensure we can continue to fulfill our mission to make Montana a “Top 10 Healthy State” that provides viable opportunities for current and future generations.

Dick Brown is the President/CEO of the Montana Hospital Association.

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