The federal Affordable Care Act is expected to provide access to medical coverage to hundreds of thousands of Maryland's uninsured, but one group said that doesn't go far enough.
The group, Healthcare is a Human Right-Maryland, led a rally Saturday in Baltimore to push for single-payer coverage similar to that in countries such as Canada and Sweden, where the government runs most of the health system and there are no insurance companies.
The health reforms widely known as Obamacare require most people to get insurance. The uninsured will be able to buy from private insurers on a state exchange. Low-income people will qualify for plans under expanded Medicaid.
Healthcare is a Human Right-Maryland said that while health reform will expand coverage to many of Maryland's 800,000 uninsured, many people still won't qualify, including immigrants in the country illegally who can't get insurance under the law.
Others still won't be able to afford adequate coverage or coverage at all, members of the group say. Health reform creates a tiered system where people who have more money can buy better plans, the group said. For example, people who buy insurance on a state exchange in Maryland can choose between bronze, silver and gold plans. The bronze plans have less costly premiums but higher deductibles.
"Although the Affordable Care Act has helped some people get insurance, it doesn't solve the problem," said Roxanna Harlow, a member of the organization's Carroll County chapter.
Maryland Health Secretary Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein said he agrees that the ultimate goal is for everyone to be insured. But he said the access Marylanders will have to insurance under reform shouldn't be underestimated.
Obamacare will also create a system that focuses on preventive care and keeping people out of the hospital. This will help create a healthier population and curb health care costs, he said.
"I think we're engaged in the task at hand right now, which is making progress in the areas that we can," he said. "We can help a lot of people through what we're working on now," he said.
Harlow was one of many who shared their experiences of living without insurance during Saturday's rally. When she left a full-time job to start an education nonprofit, Harlow said, she didn't make enough to pay for insurance. Under Obamacare, she will qualify for Medicaid. But she said that is only because Maryland chose to expand Medicaid under reform. The law gives states the choice to opt out of Medicaid expansion, which many states chose to do. Because of this, many people will remain uninsured.
In addition to Medicaid expansion, federal subsidies will also be offered to help people who fall under certain incomes pay for insurance.
That won't help everyone, those at the rally said. They believe that under health reform, deductibles, co-pays and other out-of-pocket medical expenses will continue to keep health coverage out of reach for some. They also say people will still be in danger of falling into debt or medical bankruptcy because of health costs they can't afford.
Raquel Rojas Rojas knows what it's like to incur exorbitant medical fees. She didn't have health insurance when she recently contracted pneumonia and landed in the hospital for two days. It cost her $12,000, and she said she feels that she'll be paying that off for the rest of her life.
Rojas now has a job as a cook at a restaurant that provides health benefits, but she said she knows many others who don't have insurance and have gotten stuck with hefty medical bills.
"As someone who has been uninsured, I really understand the importance of fighting for this," she said.
Rojas and a large group marched from Highlandtown to the Canton waterfront and the offices of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield.
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Healthcare is a Human Right-Maryland believes that insurance companies such as CareFirst cause many of the problems with access to coverage. CareFirst officials could not be reached for comment Saturday.
Margaret Flowers was a pediatrician until 2007, when she said she became fed up with the insurance industry. She said insurers don't pay for much-needed tests and drugs. She also had a hard time getting paid for services, she said.
"The system is not about health," she said. "It is about profit. I decided I would quit and fight for health care."
Sergio Espana, the statewide organizer for Healthcare is a Human Right-Maryland, said he hopes the rally brings more attention to the need for a better health care system.
"What we have now is not enough," he said.