Over the past three years, since Medicaid coverage was expanded in our state to provide insurance to an additional 600,000 people, I have seen lives and communities transformed. These include our Eastside communities. This coverage has brought greater health, peace of mind, and more possibilities for those who’ve gained it as a result of the Affordable Care Act and our state’s bipartisan decision to expand Medicaid. We have been able to come so far and achieve better health access for many and now we must not move backwards.
Expanded insurance coverage has enabled community health centers to provide more comprehensive primary care, including wellness exams, chronic disease management and dental care. The potential loss of Medicaid coverage has caused a lot of anxiety among our patients. We are hearing our patients’ concerns on a regular basis regarding losing health care for their children, as well as themselves. Nothing is worse than seeing your loved ones in pain and distress, and that is why maintaining Medicaid coverage is so important.
Support to maintain coverage and care for our low-income and vulnerable residents must happen at both the federal and state level. Washington state has long been a leader in improving access to care. And our state is stronger because of it. We must maintain the bi-partisan support that has created these opportunities and successes and protect the safety net.
There’s also work to be done to improve health care access because insurance coverage doesn’t always guarantee you can get care. Two areas in particular create barriers to care – a serious shortage of providers for underserved communities and not enough dental clinics to meet tremendous demand.
To attract more providers to serve patients with complex needs at community health centers and other settings, we have a proven solution in the Health Professional Loan Repayment Program. Two years ago the Legislature wisely re-invested in the program after years of major cuts. Last year behavioral health specialists, who are critical in enabling us to treat the whole person, were included in the program for the first time. But only 40 percent of the people who applied received awards last year, even before a whole new category of providers was added. Our health center has 12 medical providers and seven dentists who are potentially eligible for loan repayment but aren’t able to get it. Loan repayment programs help community health centers recruit and retain quality health care providers. Across the state, community health centers are asking for a $9 million increase to the program to ensure more communities can get care.
The shortage of dental clinics across the state has created a real crisis for people’s oral health. Only one in five Medicaid patients received dental care last year as a result. Oral health problems negatively impact employability for adults, learning and school attendance for children, and management of chronic disease. International Community Health Services has nearly tripled the number of dental chairs throughout its clinics, including adding 10 dental chairs in the Bellevue Medical and Dental Clinic in May 2014, and all clinics are already at capacity. Community health centers have plans for dozens of new and expanded dental clinics across the state. An additional investment from the state legislature can make them a reality, bringing oral health to tens of thousands more people.
Giving people insurance coverage and access to health care shouldn’t be political. It should just be common sense and a right.
Redmond resident Rana Amini is a health advocacy manager for International Community Health Services (ICHS), a nonprofit community health center that offers affordable health care services to King County’s Asian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities, and the broader community. ICHS provides primary care services including medical, dental, and behavioral health at seven locations, including Bellevue.