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Need health insurance? Marylanders can now check a box on their income taxes to begin enrollment | COMMENTARY

Marylanders without health insurance can simply check a box on their state income tax return to start the process of enrolling in a health plan.
Marylanders without health insurance can simply check a box on their state income tax return to start the process of enrolling in a health plan.

Tax-filing season is here. It’s not usually a time to celebrate, but this year, there’s a new feature that thousands of state taxpayers may find beneficial.

This tax season marks the beginning of the Maryland Easy Enrollment Health Insurance Program, thanks to legislation passed by the General Assembly last year. This innovative new program lets people without health insurance simply check a box on their state income tax return to start the process of enrolling in a health plan.

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Once a tax filer checks that box, the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange will determine their eligibility for Medicaid and for free or low-cost private insurance. This year, people will get a letter saying whether they qualify for insurance, with instructions about how to complete their enrollment. Starting next year, a more streamlined and automatic process will apply.

This new program will make it easy for uninsured Marylanders to learn whether they qualify for affordable insurance and then to enroll. This should reach people throughout Maryland who don’t yet know how much help they can get under the Affordable Care Act. Before long, thousands will have coverage — and the peace of mind that comes with more affordable health care.

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No other state has tried this approach, and we’re proud that Maryland is once again leading the way in health care innovation.

Our state has made remarkable progress enrolling families into health insurance since the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010. Enrollment in Maryland’s health insurance exchange grew to a four-year high last year, even as the federal government has thrown up hurdle after hurdle in an attempt to undermine the law. Nearly 158,000 Marylanders who don’t get coverage through their employer or a government program signed up for private health insurance for this year.

But far too many uninsured remain to be reached. In fact, more than 350,000 state residents still lack coverage. Some worry that signing up will be complicated or coverage will be too costly. Many don’t know financial assistance is available to help pay for insurance.

The new program makes the enrollment process easier than in the past, and many people will be pleasantly surprised to find that they can obtain high-quality insurance at a low cost. A surprisingly large number will discover that free coverage is available. In Maryland, 50,000 uninsured tax filers are eligible for Medicaid but not enrolled, including 15,000 children. Around 119,000 uninsured Marylanders qualify for financial assistance under the Affordable Care Act to help buy private coverage, including 31,000 for whom such coverage would be free.

Health insurance helps families’ financial security and makes it more affordable for the newly enrolled to visit the doctor, fill prescriptions and take care of other health needs. But the rest of us benefit as well. Expanding the pool of people covered by insurance lowers premiums for everyone. Among other things, hospitals will face less need to provide uncompensated care to people who can’t pay for services. This lowers what they charge to patients who DO have insurance.

Starting Monday, the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative is airing radio commercials in the Baltimore region featuring Orioles Hall of Famer Eddie Murray. Known for making slugging look easy, Mr. Murray is the perfect spokesman for the Easy Enrollment program, and we know the public will pay attention to his message.

Creation of the Easy Enrollment program showed how states can lead on health care — with both parties coming together around practical solutions that improve people’s lives. The legislation to create the program won overwhelming support from Democratic and Republican legislators alike. The proposal’s chief champions in the General Assembly, Senator Brian J. Feldman of Montgomery County and Delegate Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk, who represents portions of Prince George’s Anne Arundel counties, were Democrats, but that didn’t stop Republican Governor Larry Hogan from enthusiastically signing the bill into law.

Already activists and legislators in other states are exploring replicating Maryland’s innovative program, and we are working closely with them to make such replication a reality. We urge Congress to pay attention and look for ways to end Capitol Hill gridlock and advance health care reform to benefit all families in America.

Maryland is showing how easy it can be.

Vincent DeMarco (demarco@mdinitiative.org) is president of the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative. Stan Dorn (sdorn@familiesusa.org) is director of the National Center for Coverage Innovation at Families USA.

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