Ending Poverty Through Health Care

After years of debate, on October 1 our nation realized a tremendous milestone in how we provide health care in America -- the rollout of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). It's one of the most controversial pieces of legislation in recent history and the largest overhaul of our health care system since the creation of Medicare. Despite the challenges and controversy, the struggle has been worth it -- the ACA is one of the most significant pieces of anti-poverty legislation passed in decades.

In the most basic sense, the law mandates that quality health care must be available to all Americans, regardless of income. The deeper value, however, is much greater. In passing this law, we as a nation made a decision to validate the belief that health care is a human right. We made the decision that no one should have to choose between heart medications and keeping the lights on, and no one should have to watch their children become ill, knowing they can't afford care for them if they're going to pay rent that month. This is the reality for millions of Americans living in poverty today.

We at Heartland Alliance, the leading anti-poverty organization in the Midwest, where I work, know this fact too well. For 125 years, we've provided health care services to those who have been forced to make those choices and who are suffering under the weight of complicated chronic illnesses. We know that a life of poverty is one on the edge, with lack of comprehensive health care acting as a major contributor.

The time we as a nation have spent in our recent squabbles over the ACA ignores this fact -- that the lack of care is trapping people in poverty and putting lives on the line. It also ignores the fact that the ACA can help resolve this via newly expanded Medicaid eligibility. Until the passage of the ACA, low-income individuals with no dependent children or disabilities were ineligible for Medicaid coverage. The ACA gives states the right to open their Medicaid programs to this often overlooked group and receive Federal funding for the costs. Illinois has taken advantage of this option, leading the way in providing comprehensive, reliable health care for all.

With the ACA in place, we in Illinois and across the country have a historic opportunity to move from emergency care to prevention on a nationwide scale. Diabetes, for example -- a condition prevalent in low-income and poor communities -- costs approximately $13,700 per year to treat. On the other hand, a preventative screening for diabetes costs approximately $65 at many local health care clinics. Through both the new ACA insurance plans and Illinois' expanded Medicaid coverage, this once unaffordable screening can become a potentially life-saving reality.

Better health isn't the only outcome we can expect, however. At Heartland Alliance, we've learned that poverty is a vicious cycle and that good health is inextricably linked to other basic human needs. Without a safe place to sleep at night, your health is at risk on a daily basis. Without good health, it's nearly impossible to get and keep a good job. And without a job, it's nearly impossible to get and keep a home. That vicious cycle can be broken, but people need support on all levels and simply placing them into a home and handing them the number to a clinic isn't enough.

We've learned that good health requires both acute and preventative care, resolving life-threatening emergencies. At the same time, we provide counseling and education -- as well as housing and job preparation services -- to teach our participants how to use opportunities such as the new health insurance marketplace and expanded Medicaid eligibility to receive the medical services they need. With health and stability on their side, they're able to prepare for their future, healthy, housed, and employed.

This week, as the ACA goes into effect, we're again bombarded by debate surrounding its value and cost. Congress is in a deadlock, non-essential government functions ground to a halt, and the new online health insurance marketplaces but promising. In the midst of the controversy, the one viewpoint we haven't heard is that of the families and individuals in poverty who stand to gain so much from the ability to finally get the health care they've gone so long without. On both the national and household level, we can enjoy better health and a decrease in the incredible debt our current system encourages. All that's left is to embrace it.