Column: Building stronger cities through better health coverage

When people think about what makes where they live great, the community's overall health and economy tend to rank high on the list. As mayors, we are proud of our cities' track records at promoting healthy and financially secure places to live. But in at least one important area — access to quality health insurance — we know more work remains. And that work must be tackled at the local level.

Local communities — not Washington, not our state capitals — are where the impact of the big decisions about health care will be most keenly felt. Poor health isn't just bad for individuals; it's bad for our cities. Where there's a high concentration of people with no health coverage, health systems that whole communities depend upon suffer. Having so many of our neighbors uninsured means more strain on health care providers, and it can also mean fewer people are well enough to report for work. Because preventive care helps curb the spread of infectious disease, improving coverage rates is also a smart public health strategy.

As mayors, we know that as more of your neighbors, co-workers, classmates and friends get covered, our communities' quality of life will improve. We'll have more people with the security and better health outcomes health insurance brings. That's why we are stepping up for Mayors Month of Action, a nationwide initiative spearheaded by Get Covered America. Across the country, city leaders are helping to spread the word about Americans' new health insurance options.

In Tampa, residents are getting connected to free, in-person assistance with the aid of the city. Consumers are able to get help at local community centers, where they can have their questions answered, shop for health insurance, compare options, and actually enroll in health insurance. First responders are also equipped with valuable information as they travel out in the community helping citizens in need.

And in Houston, city staff have teamed up with community-based partners to reach the uninsured in the places where they live, work and play. Sophisticated data tracking helps guide this effort, which is helping city staff to work alongside groups with deep ties to the community at tax-preparation centers, schools and community organizations so uninsured Houstonians learn about their new options and how they can enroll. The lack of health insurance was so severe and such a significant problem that we implemented an emergency management response system with our community-based partners to coordinate enrollment initiatives. We treated the opportunity to enroll the uninsured the same way we would respond to a natural disaster: with attention and coordination.

Many residents are still learning about their new coverage choices. In the past, having a pre-existing condition made it hard for many to get coverage, and insurance plans filled with loopholes or tricky fine print made it difficult to shop. People who didn't have health coverage through their jobs or a public program like Medicare had trouble finding a plan that fit the family budget.

Thankfully, that's all changing. As of this year, health insurers can no longer discriminate against people based on a history of illness or injury. Plans are clear and cover all the essentials, with prescriptions, emergency care, maternity care, mental health care and other basics covered in every new plan.

And financial help is available, from tax credits to cost-sharing reductions. In fact, four out of five Americans who have enrolled so far in the new health insurance marketplace got help paying for their plans. Plans also are competitively priced. About six in 10 uninsured consumers can find plans that cost them $100 or less per month.

While both of our states have among the nation's highest uninsured rates, Texas and Florida have connected more people than any other states to their new coverage options on the federal health insurance marketplace. Last year a million people in Houston and Harris County were uninsured, as were more than 200,000 Tampa and Hillsborough County residents. We want to make sure the marketplace's rocky beginning doesn't overshadow a critical opportunity to get more of our cities' uninsured residents covered, before the open enrollment period ends March 31.

As mayors, we want to make sure the next few weeks allow as many of our community members as possible to get the coverage and peace of mind that will help make our cities even better places to live.

Annise Parker is the mayor of Houston. Bob Buckhorn is the mayor of Tampa. Visit GetCoveredAmerica.org to learn more about new health insurance options, calculate what possible plans cost and get access to in-person help.

Column: Building stronger cities through better health coverage 02/06/14 [Last modified: Thursday, February 6, 2014 3:31pm]

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