Save lives at low cost: Expand Medicaid in Pennsylvania

Gov. Corbett can negotiate changes with the federal government later

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More than a half-million low-income, uninsured Pennsylvanians stand to gain access to affordable health coverage, many for the first time. They include hard-working people who do not receive health coverage through their jobs, who lost their jobs due to tough economic times or who have been diagnosed with a serious illness such as cancer that prevents them from working full time.

These individuals generally cannot afford adequate health insurance and are forced to put off needed care. They rely on emergency rooms or free or low-cost health clinics for sporadic treatment. For someone managing a chronic disease such as cancer, this type of patchwork medicine often results in poor health outcomes. And the resulting uncompensated care is a huge economic drain on the Pennsylvania health system.

Gov. Corbett can now address this problem by providing a new pathway to affordable coverage for these 520,000 uninsured Pennsylvanians. States have the option under the new federal health law to provide uninsured people earning up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level ($15,281 for an individual; $31,321 for a family of four in 2013) health coverage through Medicaid. The law allocates federal funds to pay 100 percent of the costs to cover low-income populations from 2014 to 2016 and no less than 90 percent of the costs afterward.

The question for Pennsylvania is whether to accept the offer of federal funds to ensure that tens of thousands of low-income, uninsured, people in the state receive quality health coverage that will help them prevent, treat and survive life-threatening diseases such as cancer. This could be done quickly through the current Medicaid program as Gov. Tom Corbett explores with the federal government his alternative Healthy Pennsylvania approach that would give the state more flexibility in how it deploys Medicaid funding.

Pennsylvanians would support the governor if he decided to take advantage of this opportunity. Recent polling commissioned by the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network shows that, by a 40-point margin (65 percent to 25 percent), Pennsylvania voters want the state to accept federal funds to provide more uninsured adults with health coverage through the state’s Medicaid program. The results also showed that more than a third of voters polled have a close friend or family member who has accessed either health insurance through Medicaid or the state Children’s Health Insurance Plan, demonstrating that people have a personal interest in increasing access to affordable health coverage.

Research shows that cancer patients with insurance fare far better than those without. Being able to access screenings and visit a doctor regularly enhances the likelihood of detecting a disease like cancer at an earlier, more curable stage that is far less expensive to treat. People who receive health coverage through Medicaid have better access to health care than do the uninsured.

Studies show that people with Medicaid coverage receive life-saving preventive screenings at higher rates than the uninsured and close to the same rate of those enrolled in private insurance. For example, more than half (56 percent) of women aged 40 to 64 enrolled in Medicaid received a mammogram in the past two years, compared to 38 percent of uninsured women and 56 percent of insured women in the same age range.

By accepting the federal funds, Pennsylvania would give hundreds of thousands of now uninsured people access to regular doctor visits, proven screenings, such as mammograms and colonoscopies, and treatments to prevent and fight a life-threatening disease such as cancer.

If Pennsylvania accepts the funds, low-income, hard-working people and families will have the security of knowing they can access lifesaving care without facing huge medical bills. It will ensure that if you, or a family member, lose your job, affordable coverage will be there while you get back on your feet.

If Gov. Corbett and lawmakers delay further in making a decision on Medicaid expansion, Pennsylvania could lose significant federal funds that could be providing a much-needed safety net for the state’s most vulnerable communities. The public supports Medicaid expansion and an increasing number of states already are taking advantage of this opportunity. It does not make sense to turn down money that is available to help Pennsylvanians and save lives.

Diane Phillips is senior director of Pennsylvania policy for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network and is based in Hershey (www.acscan.org).

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