OpEd: New York Should Expand Health Coverage and Tackle Medical Debt

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OpEd: New York Should Expand Health Coverage and Tackle Medical Debt

Last August I was admitted to St. Catherine of Siena Hospital in Smithtown with chest pain, intense headaches and overwhelming dizziness. I could barely stand. After three days, I left with a referral for a neurologist. Then came the real nightmare: a $54,000 hospital bill. 

The dread overtook me. I’m a factory worker who’s lived in Central Islip for more than 20 years. Because I’m undocumented, I can’t access health insurance. Now I’m saddled with medical debt that could take a lifetime to pay. My symptoms have continued, but I can’t afford to pay out of pocket for further tests. 

Approximately 255,000 New Yorkers lack health insurance because of our immigration status. We can’t access vital tests and treatment, and if we need emergency care, we’re left in turmoil. New Yorkers from all walks of life — citizens and noncitizens alike — struggle to pay hospital bills and escape medical debt.

Our state must take steps to ensure that no one else suffers this way. First, the New York State Legislature can pass the Coverage for All bill to expand health insurance to all low-income New Yorkers, regardless of immigration status. Remarkably, we can do this at no cost to the state. 

Gov. Kathy Hochul can ask the federal government to cover all low-income New Yorkers’ health insurance, regardless of immigration status, through a Section 1332 waiver request. If approved as it was in Washington and Colorado, the waiver would allow the state to draw from the $2 billion annual surplus in its Essential Plan trust fund to cover expansion. Last year, Hochul promised to include immigrants in her 1332 waiver, but has since backtracked. 

Coverage for All would also save money. New York currently spends almost $500 million annually on Emergency Medicaid for immigrants. By using federal funds to expand coverage, New York could redirect spending to other priorities. 

This proposal is quite popular. A recent survey found that 88% of New Yorkers support quality health care for all, regardless of immigration status.

Second, New York lawmakers should address medical debt by passing the Ounce of Prevention Act. New York’s hospital prices are the third highest in the country, despite the hospitals getting more than $1 billion from the state to offset their uncompensated care losses. 

In exchange for this funding, hospitals must offer free or discounted care to uninsured low- and moderate-income patients. But hospitals often fail to take this step. They leave patients in debt, send us to collections, and even sue us. The Ounce of Prevention Act would reform the Hospital Financial Assistance Law to ensure access to financial assistance. 

I still can’t get insurance and I’m too scared to return to a hospital and leave with even more debt. No one should suffer this way. Coverage for All and The Ounce of Prevention Act would help ensure that all New Yorkers have access to health coverage and stop patients’ lives being decimated by medical debt. 

Teresa Rebaza is a Long Island resident and member of Make the Road New York. On Twitter: @MaketheRoadNY