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The importance of signing up [Commentary]

Since Oct. 1, the Affordable Care Act has provided full health care coverage to over 230,000 Marylanders who previously had either no health insurance or low quality or unaffordable coverage. This is a tremendous public health success for our state. Yes, Maryland's health exchange website has had serious problems, some of which still need to be fixed, but we need to hear the success stories as well.

And every Marylander who can benefit from the ACA needs to know how to do so. That is why we at the Maryland Health Care For All! Coalition are partnering with Ravens star Lardarius Webb and United Way to air radio ads running right now letting people know that they can call 211 to find out how they, too, can benefit from the Affordable Care Act by signing up for a plan before the current open enrollment period ends on March 31.

Tom Friedel is among the more than 230,000 Marylanders who have already benefited from the ACA. Mr. Friedel's family had insurance, but with his plan year ending, he wanted to see if he could get better coverage at an affordable premium. The plan his family had provided little real health care coverage. With support from a navigator at Health Care Access Maryland, he not only successfully signed himself up for a good new plan that he could afford, he also learned that his son was eligible for coverage under the Maryland Children's Health Insurance Program, which he had not heard of before.

In Mr. Friedel's own words, "It's great because my son really likes his doctor, and with the new plan he can continue to see that doctor. My old insurer had threatened to increase my premium to $1,000 a month, a level I could not afford. Now I don't have to worry about that. And, although my plan will cost a little more than what I had been paying, the benefits are so much better in the new plan and provide us real health care coverage."

Another person who has been helped by the Maryland Health Connection is Nancy Hughes, a teacher who recently lost her job and her health insurance. Ms. Hughes is living with several serious health issues and was recently hospitalized three times within a three-month period. Not being able to see a doctor was taking a serious toll on her health.

She came to HealthCare Access Maryland to find out if she was eligible for a health plan that she could afford. Working with a navigator, Ms. Hughes discovered she was eligible for free coverage through Medicaid and enrolled in a managed care organization. Her navigator also provided her with information to help her choose a primary care physician to manage the care she needs for her health issues.

"I am so grateful for the help I received from my navigator," Ms. Hughes said. "I had been feeling very down and worried with my health problems, medical bills, and no insurance. But the navigator made the enrollment process easy and brought some cheer to my life. Finally having health insurance is a real blessing and life-saver."

Even before Oct. 1, the ACA gave tax credits to many small business owners to help them provide needed health care coverage for themselves and their employees. Jamal Lee of Bresia Studios in Laurel is one of these business owners. He says, "Having coverage has helped my family and my business stay on track and grow over the past several years. I'm glad that so many people have already signed up. But we need to get the word out and make sure that no one is leaving anything on the table."

Plainly, the Affordable Care Act is working very well for hundreds of thousands of Marylanders. Our goal is to make it work even better. We are pleased that state and federal officials and the General Assembly are looking closely at what went wrong with the website to make sure it is working flawlessly for the second open enrollment period in November.

But right now, our paramount goal is to make sure that every Marylander who is eligible for benefits under the ACA takes full advantage of those benefits. We will continue to work closely with Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration to build on the enrollment successes we have had to date. And, we urge Marylanders without health care coverage to do what Lardarius Webb advises them: "Pick up the phone and call 211. That's a winning call!"

Vincent DeMarco is president of the Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative. His email is demarco@mdinitiative.org.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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