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Legislature must act to provide communities hard-hit by COVID-19 greater access to health coverage & care

By Frank Argote-Freyre, July 29 2020 11:04 am

OPINION

There were about a dozen COVID-19 cases in New Jersey when Governor Murphy declared a public health emergency on March 9, 2020. There are now more than 179,000 cases. While direct guidance and strong action from the state has helped New Jersey stabilize, the pandemic continues to present challenges and make life difficult for residents. Many are struggling financially with no resolution in sight.

Millions nationwide have lost their health insurance due to job losses caused by the pandemic. In New Jersey, roughly 124,000 residents lost their coverage when they lost their jobs due to COVID-19. For many in Black and Latino communities, this stark reality is made worse by health and economic disparities that existed well before the pandemic.

Latinos and African-Americans have some of the largest uninsured rates in the country and in the state. They are also contracting the virus and dying from it at a higher rate. A New York Times report published earlier this month shows that Black and Latino people in America have been disproportionally affected by COVID-19. According to the report, which used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African-Americans and Latinos have been three times as likely to become infected, and nearly twice as likely to die from the virus as White people.

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only revealed, but exacerbated the disparities faced by Black and Latino communities in this country. Expanding access to health care and making health coverage more affordable has never been more critical. This is why the Legislature must support and take action on the proposed legislation by Senator Joe Vitale and Assemblyman John McKeon to help lower the cost of health insurance for residents hit hardest by this health crisis.

The bill (S-2676/A-4389) would allow the state to replace the federal government’s health insurance fee (HIF) — which sunsets at the end of the year — with a state health insurance assessment (HIA). Unlike revenue from the federal HIF, which was not tied to any specific use, revenue from the state HIA would be dedicated entirely to increasing health coverage affordability and addressing the inequities that keep people uninsured. What the bill proposes is not a new assessment. It is a continuation of the federal assessment to help uninsured New Jerseyans get covered.

The HIA is expected to raise approximately $220 million annually for the state. Most of the HIA revenue would be used to provide state subsidies in the individual market to residents earning up to 400 percent of the poverty level. This means an individual earning up to $51,040 and a family of four earning up to $104,800, would qualify for the additional subsidy. These state subsidies would be available in addition to federal subsidies (premium tax credits and cost-sharing reductions) to help lower the cost of health insurance for eligible residents.

New Jersey will operate its own Health Insurance Marketplace starting Nov. 1 of this year, when the Affordable Care Act Open Enrollment Period begins. In order to build the technology to provide this additional assistance to residents shopping for coverage during the Open Enrollment Period, the Legislature and Governor Murphy must act before the end of July. This will help make health insurance more affordable at a time when it is most needed. Most of the uninsured population in New Jersey is under 400 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, and would directly benefit from the additional subsidy.

New Jersey has taken deliberate action to protect the Affordable Care Act and make health insurance more accessible and affordable to those who need it. The state’s reinsurance program, coverage requirement, and the creation of a State-Based Marketplace have contributed to insurance rates that are 22 percent lower in 2020 than they would have been. Providing additional subsidies to lower the cost of health coverage for residents who otherwise cannot afford it is another step in the right direction.

The state has asked New Jerseyans to trust and follow its guidance on COVID-19 and the vast majority have complied. It is the reason why New Jersey, once a COVID-19 hot spot, has seen its COVID-19 figures drop dramatically. Residents deserve all the help the state can provide during this incredibly tough time. The Legislature cannot let this opportunity pass by the thousands of New Jersey residents who are struggling and would benefit from paying less for their health insurance.

Frank Argote-Freyre is the chair of the New Jersey Latino Action Network Foundation.

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