Another 50 Years: Protecting Medicaid and Medicare

Fifty years ago, the idea of creating a social health care safety net was far from a sure thing. When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Medicaid and Medicare into law on July 30, 1965, it was amidst much controversy regarding whether the government should involve itself in health insurance. Decades later, the idea of ensuring that all Americans have health care is still disputed by our elected leaders. What is not in doubt are the health care needs of our nation's most vulnerable. Despite differences in opinion and spending cutbacks over time, Medicaid and Medicare have endured.

These programs serve as lifelines for more than 120 million Americans. Ten percent of Asian Americans (AA) and 14 percent of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (NHPI) count on Medicaid to see a doctor, fill a life-saving prescription and stay healthy so they can work to provide for their families. More than 867,000 elderly and disabled Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders receive health insurance through Medicare. Medicaid has also long allowed AA and NHPI women to access free contraception and quality pregnancy care and has helped persons with disabilities get the support they need to live in their homes.

Protecting these programs is vital to our families and communities. Like other minorities, Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are less likely to access health care. Although minorities make up 40 percent of the U.S. population, they account for more than half of the uninsured population across the country. The Affordable Care Act (ACA), which allowed states to expand Medicaid, was an important milestone in addressing the gap in health care coverage.

Thanks to the law's expansion, struggling Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in 31 states realized the dream of coverage they would otherwise never be able to afford. They include people like a Pakistani American family in Los Angeles surviving on $1500 a month who struggled to afford $500 premiums for private coverage for only the husband, who is diabetic. California's Medicaid expansion changed their lives; they no longer have to skip meals in order to afford medicine.

Organizations such as the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum continue to work to educate and expand enrollment in Medicaid and Medicare because we know the critical role these programs play in ensuring our most underserved communities have accessible health care. Yet despite the impact these programs have made on the lives of AA and NHPI individuals and others, these programs remain on the chopping block in Washington and beyond. Leaders in some of states with the largest or growing AA and NHPI populations--Texas, Florida, and Mississippi--have refused to expand Medicaid. This has left struggling community members in those states with little resources to get health care.

Access to health care shouldn't depend on where one lives. The ACA has set the stage for community advocates to continue expanding and strengthening health care, but our local, state and federal elected leaders must also do their part. We need state leaders who choose to expand Medicaid to more low-income families and national leaders who affirm their commitment to both Medicaid and Medicare.

With the 2016 elections on the horizon, the opportunity is ripe for those seeking re-election and those looking to enter the race to connect to some of the most important needs of our communities by ensuring they will protect Medicaid and Medicare. With that commitment today, we can work toward another 50 years of progress in making quality health care accessible to all.

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