LARGO- Days before a key provision of his health care law takes effect, President Barack Obama told an audience in Prince George’s County Thursday that affordable health care in the United States is a right and not a privilege and called on Maryland to help spread the word about the Affordable Care Act.
Obama visited Prince George’s Community College on his third trip to the county and explained to Marylanders how and where to enroll for coverage, and what health care will mean for thousands across the state and millions across the country.
“For a long time, America was the only advanced economy in the world where health care was not a right but a privilege. We spent more, we got less,” Obama said.
Starting Tuesday, uninsured Americans will be able to shop for private health insurance through state-based exchanges online. Maryland is one of 16 states and the District of Columbia that has established its own marketplace with competitive rates, run with their own regulations.
The 34 remaining states will use the country-wide insurance marketplace, run by the federal government. Coverage starts on Jan. 1.
“If you’re one of 45 million Americans with a mental illness, you’re covered,” Obama said. “If you lose your job, and your healthcare with it, you’re covered.”
Under the Affordable Care Act, which is designed to give middle and low-income Americans access to affordable health care, insurance companies can no longer deny coverage to people due to their pre-existing conditions.
“We’re the wealthiest nation on earth. No one should go broke because they get sick,” Obama said. “Five days from now, on Oct. 1, millions of Americans that don’t have health insurance … they will finally be able to buy quality, affordable health insurance.”
The president addressed the backlash to Obamacare from the Republican Party. The act was signed into law on March 23, 2010, but Republicans have fought the implementation of the law every step of the way.
Most recently, some GOP legislators are using an upcoming debt ceiling deadline to bargain for a one-year year delay of some provisions of the law.
“The Supreme Court ruled it constitutional. Republicans in Congress have voted over 40 times to repeal it … At every step, they’ve been unsuccessful,” Obama said.
While he praised Republican governors in Pennsylvania, Arizona and Ohio for expanding Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act, Obama asked what all the fuss was about from the other side of the aisle.
“Over the past few years the Republican Party has just split itself up over this issue… they’re not worried about whether it’s going to fail, they’re worried about if it’s going to succeed,” Obama said.
Maryland State Delegate Ron George, R-Anne Arundel, who is running for governor, said he doesn’t believe in the social model of Obamacare. He said Maryland should have a free-market exchange system where the state opens up its borders to insurance companies from other states.
“Competition is the best regulator of pricing and quality,” George said.
George, who is founder of the Doctors’ Caucus, said that most physicians in Maryland are at or above retirement age, and that many are considering early retirement as the Affordable Care Act takes effect.
“The funding just isn’t there,” George said. “To implement it requires a lot more work.”
On Tuesday, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, began a 21-hour speech against the law, while Obama sat with former President Bill Clinton to outline and promote Obamacare before an audience in New York during the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting.
Since he signed the law, the United States has seen the slowest growth in health care costs on record, Obama said. Many benefits from the law have already been enjoyed, like free preventative care, which includes contraceptive care, and lower cost of prescription medicine for senior citizens.
Gov. Martin O’Malley, Rep. Steny Hoyer, Rep. Donna Edwards and Sen. Ben Cardin, spoke before Obama arrived Thursday and reminded the crowd that on Oct. 1 uninsured Marylanders can shop for 70 coverage plans from nine providers through the state’s online healthcare exchange.
“It’s simple, it’s straightforward and it’s good for us all,” Hoyer said.
Edwards said she knows what it’s like not to have health insurance and thought she was healthy when she became ill.
“Guess what, I got sick,” Edwards said. “Like so many Marylanders, I almost lost my home because I didn’t have health insurance.”
The president acknowledged that there will be “glitches” as the Affordable Care Act rolls out, but it will be smoother in states like Maryland where governors are working hard to implement it, he said.
In a Pew Research Center survey from earlier this month, opinion among uninsured Americans remains sharply divided, with 49 percent supporting the law and 46 percent opposing it. Thirty-four percent of those asked did not know if state-based health care exchanges will be available in their state, suggesting that many Americans are confused about the basics of Obamacare.
In Maryland, there are 800,000 uninsured people, said Kathleen Westcoat, CEO and president of HealthCare Access Maryland. The Baltimore-based organization received a $7.9 million grant to help consumers in central Maryland understand and enroll in health insurance.
There are 220,000 uninsured people living in the central region, including Baltimore, Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County, Westcoat said, many with chronic health conditions like hypertension and diabetes. She expects 50,000 to 60,000 uninsured people to enroll in the exchange and expanded Medicaid program within the first year.
Maryland is a state that “absolutely” needs Obamacare, particularly in the central region, Westcoat said.
Danny Hayes, assistant professor of political science at George Washington University, said the success or failure of Obamacare is “something that only history can judge.”
Public opinion remains divided on Obamacare, but Hayes said that Americans have a more positive view of the bill when asked about specific aspects of it, like the denying of coverage to people with preexisting conditions and the ability for children and young adults to remain on their parents’ health plan until they are 26.
But the negative public opinions have “emboldened the Republicans and (has) given them some motivation,” Hayes said.