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A simple unemployment form change could help struggling Marylanders access affordable health care | COMMENTARY

Unemployment insurance initial claims in Maryland were up 2,207.13% during the weeks of March 16 through May 11 compared to the same weeks in 2019.
Unemployment insurance initial claims in Maryland were up 2,207.13% during the weeks of March 16 through May 11 compared to the same weeks in 2019. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

Maryland, like the rest of the country, is still trying to recover from the economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic, even as caseloads spike again. Far too many of our friends, neighbors and family members are out of work — struggling to pay their bills and to stay afloat financially.

Adding to their problems is the fact that many of these people pushed into unemployment also lost their employer-sponsored health insurance. The number of people who are uninsured in the state has risen significantly since the pandemic hit here in March, with as many as 195,000 people estimated to have lost coverage — at the worst possible time, during a deadly pandemic of rapidly spreading disease.

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Without health insurance, people are literally four times as likely to delay necessary care because of cost or to go without care entirely. This delays the detection and treatment of COVID-19, placing laid-off workers in danger and helping the virus spread undetected. The most important step toward economic recovery is defeating the virus, which we cannot do if the number of uninsured in our state is high and rising.

Other diseases do not go on vacation when COVID-19 strikes. Without insurance, breast cancer gets detected at later stages, when it is harder to treat successfully. People with heart disease can’t afford to fill their prescriptions, with grim results. No Marylander should have to choose between essential health care and buying food for their family, but that is exactly what happens when people lose health insurance.

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For many people who lack coverage, an affordable — or even free — insurance plan is available. But many people simply don’t know where to begin to find coverage. As a state, we need to take steps to educate the public and make it easier for people who are facing unemployment to enroll in health insurance.

There’s a straightforward way to do it: The Maryland Department of Labor could add questions to its forms that let people without coverage find out whether they qualify for free or low-cost health care — and get help signing up — at the same time they apply for unemployment insurance.

Those applicants' information would be forwarded to the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange, which runs our state’s online health insurance marketplace (marylandhealthconnection.gov).

The team at the exchange would then contact the applicants to help them obtain health insurance. For many, assistance available through the Affordable Care Act will make coverage available for free or at low cost.

Experience has shown that if you help people enroll in insurance, they will sign up. Earlier this year, Kentucky provided 130,000 people with health care by calling unemployment-insurance claimants and filling out their health care forms over the phone. And last year, we launched the Maryland Easy Enrollment Health Insurance Program, which allows people without insurance to start the enrollment process by simply checking a box on their income tax returns.

The Easy Enrollment program has helped more than 4,000 Marylanders get insurance, giving them peace of mind that they will be able to cope with costly medical issues. And all of us benefit with more people having insurance, especially during a pandemic. With more people in the insurance pool, premiums go down for everyone. This success shows that a modest investment by the state benefits all of us by helping our neighbors get the health care they need and reducing overall health care costs.

It was a great effort to make the Easy Enrollment program, fueled by the team at the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange, the Maryland Comptroller’s office and advocates. We can do it again and make it easier for out-of-work Marylanders to get health insurance.

Attorney General Brian Frosh’s COVID-19 Access to Justice Task Force has endorsed this idea, and we are optimistic that the Maryland Health Insurance Coverage Protection Commission will soon too. We will introduce legislation in the 2021 General Assembly session to make this concept a reality. We appreciate the great work of the nonprofits Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative and Families USA, which advanced this concept.

Maryland has been a leader in expanding access to health care, but we still have work to do to give all Marylanders a clear route to enrolling in an affordable insurance plan. Let’s help people who are struggling to deal with this economic crisis by giving them an easier pathway to securing affordable health insurance.

Del. Lorig Charkoudian (lorig.charkoudian@house.state.md.us) is a Democrat representing Montgomery County in the state legislature. Also contributing to this piece are: Democratic Sen. Brian Feldman (brian.feldman@senate.state.md.us) of Montgomery County, and Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk (joseline.pena.melnyk@house.state.md.us) and Sen. Jim Rosapepe (jim.rosapepe@senate.state.md.us), both Democrats representing Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties.

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