Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra in Washington, D.C., in June. Becerra met w/ longtime US Rep. Alma Adams this week in Charlotte to talk health care post-pandemic.  (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images) HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra
Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra in Washington, D.C., in June. Becerra met w/ longtime US Rep. Alma Adams this week in Charlotte to talk health care post-pandemic. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

US Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and US Rep. Alma Adams call expanding Medicaid and boosting health care access a non-partisan issue.

Alma Adams knows what it’s like to live in fear of getting sick. When the Greensboro congresswoman was a girl, her family couldn’t afford health insurance or a regular physician. If she or her sister, who has sickle cell, fell seriously ill, her mother’s only resort was the one place they could not be turned away.

“I can recall getting up at 2 o’clock, 3 o’clock in the morning and going with my mother to the emergency room,” Adams shared. “I don’t want anybody to have to do that.”

That push for health care access is why Adams joined US Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra this week for a roundtable discussion at the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy (CCLA). The group discussed newly available benefits from the Affordable Care Act, the ongoing push to expand the Medicaid program in North Carolina, and the best ways to continue providing care for people as the pandemic crests.

READ MORE: 12 States Refuse to Expand Medicaid. This Is How It Hurts Latinos.

Under the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan, which passed in March, new insurance options are available to millions of Americans, and more benefits will be put in the pipeline if the sweeping American Families Plan passes Congress. The AFP would institute national paid medical leave and invest $200 billion to improve access to affordable health insurance and health care. Maternal health funding and permanently lowered insurance premiums are two of the features.

The roundtable’s attention also focused on the Republican-led state legislature’s refusal to expand Medicaid, leaving many of the state’s working poor without any way to afford healthcare. 

“We want every American to have peace of mind so if their child has to go to the hospital, they don’t worry about paying the mortgage or the rent,” Becerra said. “The leadership in North Carolina should help the hardworking people of North Carolina have access to the health insurance they need.” 

North Carolina lags behind the 38 other states and Washington, D.C., that have opted to expand Medicaid coverage and use federal dollars to offer healthcare to those who can’t afford to buy it themselves. Even GOP-led states such as Montana, Oklahoma, Idaho and Ohio have gotten onboard. Around 500,000 currently uninsured North Carolinians could have coverage if North Carolina’s state legislature takes up the federal government’s offer to expand Medicaid. The state would also receive additional funding to provide more care for low-income seniors, children and some persons with disabilities. 

“Health care has never been a partisan issue,” said Adams, a Democrat. “If you’re sick, you need to see a doctor. The pain you have isn’t because you are a Democrat or a Republican.”

Healthcare Options for Those Going Without

With the passage of the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan in March, insurance premiums in the Affordable Care Act marketplace dropped drastically. 

According to the NC Navigator Consortium, which helps North Carolina residents enroll in health insurance plans through the ACA, plans previously averaged about $60 a month. Since the passage of the ARP, four out of every five people who signed up are paying less than $10 a month for their plans

And, for those who have received unemployment benefits in 2021, the cost goes down to zero. 

“The American Rescue Plan gave a big boost to the number and size of subsidies people were eligible for,” Nicholas Riggs, assistant director of the Legal Aid of North Carolina Navigator Project, told Cardinal & Pine. 

Since the open enrollment period began in March, 1.2 million Americans have signed up for insurance coverage under the ACA. People in need of health insurance can sign up for plans on the federal marketplace through August 15. You can reach the NC Navigator Consortium for help evaluating plans by calling 1-855-733-3711 or by visiting www.ncnavigator.net.  

In addition to preventive care and physical health, Becerra cited pandemic-related rises in financial stress, anxiety, opioid addiction, depression and suicide as reasons more people need to access ACA benefits. North Carolina healthcare providers couldn’t agree more. According to the North Carolina Healthcare Association, the state is in a “behavioral health emergency,” with an exponential increase in the number of families turning to emergency rooms for help with mental health crises.

“North Carolina’s mental health system is in crisis,” Dan Sea of the CCLA told roundtable attendees. “Patients are in the coverage gap and don’t qualify for Medicaid. We need large organizations and community-based health services that are meaningful and effective. We need support for the whole spectrum. Somewhere people in crisis  can go instead of languishing in ERs.”

Becerra urged the individuals and organizations present to push their lawmakers to allow the expansion of Medicaid in North Carolina. 

“We’ve never treated mental health like physical health,” said Becerra, with a fraction of the money going to pay for mental health struggles. “The most important capital is our human capital, investing in our people.” 

The extended special enrollment period at healthcare.gov is looming. People have until August 15 to enroll in a plan on the Affordable Care Act marketplace.