Health care for all a step closer

By STATE SEN. KWAME RAOUL (D-13th)

During the White House tenure of my predecessor in this senate seat, our nation has finally begun moving the ball forward on health care access for all. Last week, the Illinois senate voted to expand our Medicaid program, using federal dollars to extend eligibility to hundreds of thousands of low-income Illinoisans. Like 24 other states so far (including eight with Republican governors), Illinois is set to accept the Affordable Care Act’s offer of full reimbursement for three years when states add previously uninsured low-income adults to their Medicaid rolls.

I proudly co-sponsored and voted for expanded access to Medicaid based on my strong belief that health care must not be regarded as a privilege or a luxury but as a basic human right. I learned this lesson from my father, a community physician who never turned away a patient because of inability to pay. I voted to make my father’s vision a reality for the 16,600 uninsured adults living in poverty in my district and the 564,000 in every corner of our state who live without a medical safety net.

Accepting the federal government’s offer will shift this population from health care via the emergency room to the kind of care we know is most effective: preventive, routine, coordinated care. Hospitals throughout Illinois will be reimbursed for services they now provide without compensation. And emergency rooms will be less crowded with non-emergencies and medical crises that could have been treated in less costly and invasive ways if detected early.

Last week my Republican colleagues in the senate opposed this common-sense step in the right direction. I believe they made a mistake. Anti-“Obamacare” Republican stalwarts from Chris Christie of New Jersey to Rick Scott of Florida are taking the federal deal, recognizing the vast potential benefits for the economy, hospitals, employment in the health care sector and overall quality of life.

If Senate Bill 26 becomes law, Illinois can turn away from the political bickering and focus on how best to integrate the newly eligible population into our health care system. Shifting the locus of care from the emergency room to the health clinic and the physician’s office will require a renewed focus on front-line providers such as nurses, mental health care professionals and primary care physicians. A recent study predicts a nationwide physician shortage of 124,000 by 2025. In Illinois, both high-poverty rural and depressed urban communities experience acute shortages. Fortunately, programs from the University of Chicago’s Urban Health Initiative to the Illinois National Health Service Corps’ loan repayment program offer incentives to medical and nursing students committed to practicing in underserved areas. As we begin to fulfill the dream of routine, high-quality health care for all, we must redouble our efforts to recruit and retain the providers who will make this dream a reality.