The Affordable Care Act has improved the lives of millions of Americans, but access to health coverage remains uneven, two members of Maryland’s congressional delegation and a panel of local health care professionals said Friday.
Race, income, geography and community conditions are all persistent factors in determining who has access to care — and by extension, lead healthier lives — the experts said.
The conclusions came during a roundtable discussion convened by Reps. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.) in Largo. The lawmakers’ assessments were echoed by local health officers, health-care providers, activists and academics seated alongside them.
The gathering was one of approximately 200 such conversations happening around the country over the weekend hosted by Democratic members of Congress, Hoyer, the majority leader in the House of Representatives, said.
“African-Americans, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans have worse health care outcomes than the population as a whole,” Hoyer said. “And we need to do something about that.”
Brown noted that quantity of care and quality are both issues.
“An African-American woman is less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than a white woman,” he said. “Yet, when an African-American woman is diagnosed with breast cancer, she’s three times more likely to die of breast cancer than a white woman.”
“That’s health disparities. And you see it across all chronic illnesses and diseases.”
Local leaders said people who lack health insurance, access to neighborhood doctors and transportation usually are in poorer health than the population as a whole.
Dr. Suzan Lowry, health officer for Charles County, told the lawmakers that community issues — like the ability to walk and play in the neighborhood and access to healthy food — play a large role in individual health.
Many people, she said, “live in a place where some public health official can give you a brochure with pretty pictures of melons, fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and you’ve never seen them before, because all you’ve seen is the local 7-Eleven or the gas station and what they have is everything in a package.”
Hoyer lamented that Congress has done “nothing” to improve on the Affordable Care Act since it passed. In his view, Democrats are aware of the law’s flaws and want to fix them, while Republican lawmakers focus only on efforts to repeal it.
He quoted former Gov. Spiro Agnew, a “progessive” Republican, who said in his inaugural address, “the cost of failure far exceeds the price of progress.”
Several panel members talked about things they are doing to improve access to care.
One speaker urged panel members to volunteer for the upcoming Mission of Mercy & Health Equity Festival that provides free dental care and other services. He said that some people sleep outside the venue, the Xfinity Center at the University of Maryland, to guarantee they get seen. (The event is Sept. 13-14 in College Park.)
Vincent DeMarco, head of the Maryland Health Care For All Coalition, noted that the General Assembly approved a measure this year to help expand access to health care by allowing people who are eligible for free or low-cost coverage to begin the process of getting covered by checking two boxes on their state tax returns.
DeMarco estimates there are 120,000 Marylanders who are eligible for Medicaid or a low-cost private plan with federal tax credits who have yet to enroll.
“This will help everybody,” he said. “The more who are enrolled, the lower our premiums are, the less uncompensated care.”
Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) signed that measure.
A second bill, establishing a first-in-the-nation Prescription Drug Affordability Board, became law without Hogan’s signature.