Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhuman." As our country celebrates his life and work this week, this quotation makes me think about health and health care through the lens of solidarity, about the ways that we all -- in our communities, in our families, in our friendships -- need to look out for each other, care for each other, and advance each other's ability to live the lives we've always dreamed about.
A key to this solidarity is the sharing of information. According to the old adage, "Information is power." But I want to take that one step further: Information is power--and it can be lifesaving.
In 2010, I took a job at the Hetrick Martin Institute, an organization serving LGBT youth between the age of 12 and 24. Throughout my time with these young heroes and sheroes, I saw resiliency and unrelenting courage not just to survive, but to thrive. These young people are often referred to as 'at-risk', but actually they're youth 'at-promise' -- waiting only for the information and opportunities they need to take charge of their own lives. Their growing self-reliance is rooted in access to information that becomes empowering and life saving.
Also in 2010, President Barack Obama signed into the law the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare. Under the law, most Americans must have health insurance coverage starting in 2014. By the end of 2014, 7 million Americans had signed up for plans through the Health Insurance Marketplace, with millions more eligible to access coverage in 2015.
But many LGBT individuals, especially young adults, are still uninsured -- and the "open enrollment" period for 2015 ends February 15th.
Good health and health care are not privileges -- they're rights. Now, given that LGBT individuals, past and present, have been denied various rights because of our sexual orientation and gender identity, I understand why many, especially people of color, are cynical towards the health system. When you combine that with the high levels of stigma and shame around HIV/AIDS both around and within our community, it's not surprising that so many LGBT individuals go without coverage and care.
But it's crucial for everyone in our community to know that leaving opportunities for health coverage on the table and trying to get along without health care only exacerbates the various health issues that already disproportionately impact LGBT people, such as mental health concerns, substance use, and HIV/AIDS.
What's more, Obamacare offers incredible new protections and opportunities for the LGBT community to act in solidarity to expand access for each of us -- including people living with HIV/AIDS and other marginalized communities -- to the quality health coverage and care we deserve.
For instance, the law prohibits sex discrimination in health care facilities that participate in Medicare or Medicaid, and in 2012 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services further clarified that this prohibition includes discrimination on the basis of transgender status. What's more, the law prevents insurance carriers from deny individuals coverage on the basis of any pre-existing condition, including HIV/AIDS and diagnoses related to gender transition. And financial assistance and free in-person help are available in every state to help people making up to almost $47,000 a year access affordable coverage.
But even with all these wonderful opportunities, many of our brothers and sisters will still go uninsured if we don't start to loudly and persistently share this information within our LGBT family. I'm using the word "family" with great intent, because family members take care of each other -- and we must make it our business to look after each other. That's what solidarity means.
When I moved to New York City in 2006, I was in search of an LGBT family, because I had zero understanding of what my life and my world would look like in this strange new place. It took the help of a broad swath of individuals for me to understand how to navigate not only New York but the world as a newly out gay man. These "family" members knew the world I was stepping out into, and they stepped up to prepare me for the ups and downs that lay ahead.
So now that I've stepped into my own personhood, I understand the responsibility and the need to "pay it forward." That's why I'm taking action to let everyone in my community know about the importance of obtaining health insurance coverage and health care.
As an LGBT community, we must continue to work to foster real solidarity around health and health care. We must be willing to share the good news about the benefits of health care. Let's never assume that everyone has health care or knows what they can do to find affordable health coverage. Let's embody the definition of family by beginning this new year with a charge that propels us to act as our brother's and sister's keeper to ensure they have the information they need to make an informed choice about health coverage.
Join me. Share the word about what the new affordable coverage options available for LGBT people. Let's link arms and march forward toward a brighter future like our lives depend on it--because they do.