This week our legislators will vote on whether or not a key piece of health care reform, also known as “Obamacare,” comes to Pennsylvania. As a result of last year's Supreme Court ruling, states can now choose whether or not to accept billions of federal dollars to expand health coverage.
Pennsylvania is offered approximately $43 billion over 10 years to expand Medicaid coverage to everyone making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line (around $15,400 for an individual or $31,800 for a family of four).
You probably know someone that would qualify. Hairdressers, cashiers, mechanics, home health aides, child care workers and servers are often among those who don't make enough to purchase private health insurance. Most of these folks are women, many are working moms.
Here in Luzerne County there are 34,258 uninsured people. 72.18 percent of them live in a household with at least one full-time worker. (8.53 percent have a disability.)
Many of the uninsured will gain coverage regardless of whether or not Pennsylvania takes the deal and expands Medicaid. These people will access quality health insurance through a new marketplace where there are subsidies available to help with the costs.
19,179 of Luzerne County's uninsured would qualify for expanded Medicaid coverage. If Pennsylvania refuses this unprecedented deal, most of these 19,000 people will remain uninsured with no options for coverage. (They won't be able to go into the marketplace, because you have to make at least 100 percent of federal poverty level to get a subsidy.)
I met a handful of these 19,000 folks at a free medical clinic a couple weeks ago. I spoke to a recent college graduate working for a company that offers insurance only to management and to a mom who teared up talking about how her and her husband both work more than full-time, but can't afford health insurance.
Accepting the $43 billion the federal government is offering to Pennsylvania to expand health coverage isn't only the right thing to do – it's also the smart thing to do. Taxpayers will save about $848 million to $1 billion or more over the next ten years in money that otherwise goes to paying for the uninsured. Tens of thousands of new jobs will be created and our economy will get a much-needed boost.
The wins for Pennsylvania are enormous. Three independent fiscal studies, including one conducted by Pennsylvania's own Independent Fiscal Office, confirm that taking this deal will strengthen Pennsylvania's economy, create jobs, and save tax payers money.
However, as someone who grew up in Luzerne County and whose entire family still resides there, I understand it's really at the local levels where the impact will be felt. It's our favorite waitress, hairdresser, preschool teacher and 19,000 of our other neighbors who are counting on Governor Corbett and Harrisburg lawmakers to do the right thing.
To make local matters worse: In 2014, our hospitals lose a portion of the funding they get to cover uninsured people. That's why hospitals are counting on Pennsylvania to expand Medicaid. Otherwise, hospitals will be treating a large portion of the 19,000 who remain uninsured without the funding to help cover those costs. Some may experience layoffs or even have to shut down altogether.
Governor Corbett and Harrisburg lawmakers are facing an important (albeit obvious) choice to make: Either accept the $43 billion the federal government is offering Pennsylvania to expand health care coverage to 700,000 or refuse the funds, leave a half million Pennsylvanians uninsured and taxpayers to deal with the consequences.
Athena Smith Ford is the Advocacy Director for the Pennsylvania Health Access Network, a non-partisan coalition that works for all Pennsylvanians to have access to quality, affordable health care. She grew up in Dorrance and still refers to Luzerne County as “home.”