In the five years since the Affordable Care Act was signed into law, 16.4 million previously uninsured Americans have obtained health coverage. In Arizona, that translates to 205,000 people enrolled in Marketplace health insurance, and more than 306,000 Arizonans enrolled in the Medicaid program.
That historic reduction – the largest shift of any period for more than four decades – was a cause for celebration Wednesday that included not only the White House Office of Public Engagement, but the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, health care executives, business leaders and public health activists.
“I want to start by saying thank you to all of you. I just don’t know if I can put into words how you have impacted people’s lives,” said Bess Evans, Associate Director with the White House Office of Public Engagement, to the crowd gathered on the lawn in front of Tucson Medical Center. “You are heroes to the people who finally have access to affordable, quality coverage.”
Melissa Stafford Jones, Region 9 Director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, concurred, applauding the work of local coalition members who helped the uninsured rate in Pima County decrease from 17 percent to 10 percent. “Because of your efforts, there are people throughout this community who are no longer waking up in the middle of the night wondering how they’re going to afford health care for themselves of their family members.”
Judy Rich, President and CEO of Tucson Medical Center, said the hospital was an early supporter of expanded coverage and has remained engaged in the ensuing years. “For those of us in the field taking care of people, it means so much to us to know that options now exist for people who did not have options before.”
Gina DeVita is one of those people. A longtime Tucson resident who has been a bartender for more than 25 years, DeVita was never able to purchase insurance, since she has worked for small mom-and-pops who weren’t able to extend insurance to their employees. She tried to sign up several times throughout her life, only to find the monthly premiums too high.
“Now, I’m able to have insurance for the first time and take advantage of it,” she said, noting she has used it since to secure preventive care and treatment for a sinus infection.
Pima County Health Department Director Francisco Garcia characterized the access to coverage as “the most crucial anti-poverty measure we have in this community, which has so many people with so many varied needs.”
He said health care workers continue actively talking about how to continue making inroads. “At the end of the day, when we are able to bring an individual into coverage, we have the power to transform their lives in terms of their economic wherewithal, their health, and their overall well-being.”
Speakers noted there remained more work to do.
Greg Vigdor, CEO of the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association, said there remain threats to the Affordable Care Act, including cases pending at the highest courts in the nation and in the state. And while hospitals continue to see decreases in uncompensated care, the Legislature passed a budget that, at least for hospitals, sets reimbursement rates below the cost of care.
“Let’s remember, though, that things worth doing usually take a lot of time and effort,” he said.
That’s where coalitions come in, said Michal Goforth, of the Pima Community Access Program, applauding the work done by the business community, hospitals, faith-based communities, community health centers, political offices, tribal partners and the behavioral health communities.
By working together, Goforth said, health care advocates can help address urgent needs by leveraging resources in a time of diminished resources. “What do we do in this community? If there is something to be done, we’re on the ground, we come together and we focus for the common good,” she said. “There’s far more work to do but we’re up to the charge.”