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Women have pivotal role in health reform

With the exciting news that Maryland has received a new federal grant of $123 million to support the establishment of its health benefit exchange — a critical component of President Barack Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — we must continue to use smart strategies to guarantee that as many uninsured Marylanders as possible get the health security the law is designed to provide.

And because we know that women make about 80 percent of the health care decisions for their families and are more likely to care for ailing family members, we at the Maryland Women's Coalition for Health Care Reform are urging state and community leaders to engage women in this effort as health care consumers, advocates and educators.

Maryland can take pride in being a national leader in health care reform, having moved quickly to implement a statewide process to expand insurance coverage and access to care.

Now, as we work to fully implement the law in 2014, one of the key challenges will be ensuring that all Marylanders — particularly those who are uninsured or struggling to pay for private insurance — are aware of the programs, services and resources that are available, and that they ultimately get the care they need.

It will be a confusing process for many who lack insurance. With that in mind, the Affordable Care Act requires states to develop a "navigator program." Trained navigators will assist individuals as they traverse the new health insurance landscape to determine their eligibility for public programs or subsidies for private insurance.

Community-based organizations will play a pivotal role in the ultimate success of Maryland's navigator program. With approximately 280,000 uninsured Maryland women — the majority of whom are black or Hispanic — we must enlist navigators who know their communities and have the cultural and linguistic skills to help people obtain affordable insurance that meets their health care needs.

Because so much is riding on this effort, our coalition is calling on the health care community and our policy leaders to develop a high-quality navigator program that:

•sets training standards that ensure that individual, certified navigators are fully prepared and competent to deal with underserved and vulnerable populations, including low-income families and people with disabilities;

•addresses barriers, including racial, cultural, educational and socioeconomic differences that could deter people from gaining coverage. Language barriers to access must be addressed with materials (whether online or printed) that reflect the linguistic needs of the community. This may mean providing translator services when appropriate;

•ensures consistent and high-quality access and services across all communities with ongoing monitoring and evaluation;

•establishes reasonable continuing educational requirements for individual navigators to ensure they have the most relevant information for their clients and that it is being equitably applied.

Many residents who go to Maryland Health Connection, the state's insurance marketplace, will be new to the process. They've never filled out an insurance application, dealt with open enrollment periods, selected a primary care physician or ever had to wonder about the difference between a copayment and a deductible. We must diligently work to raise awareness across the state of the new resources, and we should keep in mind that this is particularly important for communities of color and low-income families where health disparities adversely affect their ability to lead healthy and productive lives.

Women, caregivers for our families and communities, stand to make tremendous strides under this legislation. Under the Affordable Care Act, approximately 245,000 women in Maryland will gain health care coverage, and many are now able to obtain preventive services at no cost. An estimated 135,000 women will be newly eligible for Medicaid coverage, and another 110,000 women will receive help paying their premiums.

With an effective navigator program, Maryland can continue to lead the nation by example. We have no choice but to get this right. Getting it right means healthier residents, healthier communities and a healthier Maryland.

Leni Preston is chairwoman of the Maryland Women's Coalition for Health Care Reform, a nonpartisan alliance of individuals and 87 statewide organizations whose goal is access to comprehensive, high-quality, affordable care for all residents.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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