The COVID-19 outbreak has highlighted and accelerated the inequities of our nation, particularly in connection with health care delivery. Concerns about rising drug costs, increasing out-of-pocket costs, huge deductibles, and inflated hospital bills (and hospitals suing those who are unable to pay) were already well-recognized problems, now brought into sharp relief by the pandemic. Added to this mix is concern about how many of the newly unemployed will lose their coverage and whether those who still have insurance will be able to afford the bills should they or a family member become ill.
In New Mexico, more than 100 people have died from COVID-19, and more than 3,000 people have tested positive for the coronavirus. While it seems as though we are successfully “flattening the curve,” the process has been far from painless, and is likely far from over.
According to the latest figures, there are a staggering 30 million Americans out of work, with that number likely to rise as the virus continues to wreak havoc upon our economy and shutters small and large businesses alike. 105,000 New Mexicans have filed for unemployment since the outbreak began. With the loss of their jobs, the majority of these workers have also lost their health insurance benefits—during a pandemic that threatens both short- and long-term physical and mental well-being.
There is a growing realization that those who have employer coverage simply cannot count on it. Under our current system, there is no health security.
COVID-19 has made it abundantly clear that we must work now to implement a health insurance system that is not tied to employment and that provides coverage for all New Mexicans. A priority area of the New Mexico Public Health Association (NMPHA) is Universal Access to Health Care, in which every person in New Mexico is entitled to quality, comprehensive health care as a human right, regardless of income, geographic location, or immigration status.
As such, the NMPHA supports and endorses the proposed NM Health Security Act, a home-grown solution that will ensure all New Mexicans have comprehensive health care coverage by setting up our own plan in New Mexico. The Health Security Plan would include freedom of choice of providers, even across state lines, and a benefit package that must be as comprehensive as the services offered to state employees, with fair premiums based on income (with caps). With Health Security, if you lose your job or change jobs, your health coverage stays with you.
While public health measures like social distancing have slowly worked to flatten the curve of new cases in New Mexico, there is no set timeline for when we can all “return to normal.” What has become clear, however, is that our health is closely intertwined with that of our neighbors. We are all safer when all New Mexicans have affordable access to comprehensive health care.
This pandemic has underscored the serious shortcomings of the private insurance system, and of tying insurance to employment. These are systemic problems, and the best way to address them is by enacting the Health Security Plan, a systemic solution that guarantees affordable coverage and enables savings to be invested in health infrastructure. The time has come for us to set up our own health plan in New Mexico, which ensures true health security. The NMPHA calls upon the state legislature to prioritize the passage of the NM Health Security Act in the 2021 legislative session.
Dana Schultz Millen, PhD, MPH is a board member of the NMPHA and serves as the education and outreach coordinator for the Health Security for NM Campaign. Troy Weeldreyer, MSW, MPH, is a board member of the NMPHA and works in mental health in Albuquerque.
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