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What the pandemic reveals: America needs a stronger, wider safety net | COMMENTARY

Because of coronavirus, the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange is using emergency powers granted under Gov. Larry Hogan to open insurance enrollment through June 15. Maryland is one of 11 states, along with the District of Columbia, to do so.
Because of coronavirus, the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange is using emergency powers granted under Gov. Larry Hogan to open insurance enrollment through June 15. Maryland is one of 11 states, along with the District of Columbia, to do so.(Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

Andy Harris, the conservative Maryland congressman, repeatedly joined his Republican colleagues in their many efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act in the House of Representatives. But look what Harris posted on his Facebook page on March 31: “Maryland has announced a special health insurance enrollment period for uninsured individuals to help cover Coronavirus treatment costs. People can enroll until April 15th. More info can be found here …” Harris then provided a link to the state’s health insurance exchange.

Imagine that: A hard-headed fellow who has made opposition to the ACA a central theme of his political life suggesting that constituents take advantage of it. I guess it took a pandemic to bring him around, but better late than never, right?

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Allow me to update and correct the congressman’s Facebook post: The enrollment period actually has been extended until June 15, and it’s not only “to help cover Coronavirus treatment.” The Maryland Health Benefit Exchange reopened so that people who did not get insurance previously can get it now. Gov. Larry Hogan announced the special enrollment period on March 11 as part of the state’s emergency response to the outbreak.

Maryland is now one of 11 states, plus the District of Columbia, that took the wise step of reopening their exchanges because of the pandemic. As for our fellow Americans in states that offer insurance through the federal exchange, Healthcare.gov, they’re stuck with Donald Trump. The president decided not to reopen the Obamacare markets for 38 states, a move that would have allowed people who lost their jobs to easily get insurance or those without insurance to get it at a time of terrifying uncertainty.

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But that is how this president rolls. He does everything he can to subvert the ACA and makes no exception even in a time of national emergency.

Opposition to the ACA — the time, words and money spent on trying to kill it — represents everything that’s been bad about American politics: super-partisanship and polarization (“If you’re for it, I’m against it”); sustained attacks on the country’s social safety net during a time of growing income inequality; the lack of empathy among wealthy members of Congress and the special interest groups that lobby them; and the defeat of common sense.

Look at the record: A vast field of conservatives and libertarians have offered a sustained attack against the law going back to its promulgation 10 years ago.

Several Republican governors and legislators refused to take federal money from the law’s Medicaid expansion, depriving their poorest and most vulnerable citizens of government-supported access to health care. Republicans refuse to fix Obamacare where it needs fixing. Trump claims he has a replacement plan, but offers nothing. And the unrelenting legal challenges raise the prospect, perhaps a year from now, of the Supreme Court of the United States overturning the ACA — throwing it out — in the aftermath (let’s hope) of the worst health crisis in a century.

None of this makes sense for the country.

And on a political level, the Republican opposition always struck me as foolish. It was a conservative think tank that devised the market model 30 years ago, yet Republicans wanted no part of Obamacare. That means they get no credit for the good it does. I once estimated that about 145,000 people who live in Maryland’s 1st congressional district had benefited from the law — despite Harris, their representative, not because of him.

Health insurance isn’t the only place where holes in the country’s safety net are being exposed in the pandemic.

Consider a fact I came across while reading an analysis of the $2.2 trillion disaster relief bill (the CARES Act) authorized by Congress: “During the Great Recession, the share of jobless workers receiving unemployment insurance benefits peaked at about 40 percent.”

That comes from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. It means only four in 10 Americans who were thrown out of work in the last downturn managed to get help from their states. That’s because each state has its own unemployment insurance program, and eligibility varies widely. While the median benefit is $366 per week nationally, in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arizona, Alabama and Tennessee it’s below $250, and below $300 in another seven states.

Now, in the midst of a crisis, Congress has come up with a more generous contribution to the states for millions of unemployed Americans. Workers who lose their jobs but are, for some reason, ineligible for their state’s program can get up to 39 weeks of benefits through the end of the year, and the CARES Act provides a $600 weekly benefit increase through July 31.

That’s a strong response. But it took a national emergency to recognize the inadequacies of the current system.

The criticism of the response — that it’s so generous Americans won’t want to go back to work — insults every man and woman who already works hard and lives paycheck to paycheck and suddenly finds no paycheck at all. But the right’s war on the social safety net has been built on such prejudice, and it persists, even in national emergency.

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The vast majority of Americans do not want to be on the dole. We want to work for a livable wage. We want affordable health care when we need it. And we want a smart government that protects and supports us — as much in good times as bad.

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