BY ROSEMARIE DAY
When the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was signed into law twelve years ago today, Joe Biden called it “a big f-ing deal.” Little did he, or anyone else at that time, realize how big of a deal it was. Just ten years later, America was engulfed in a global pandemic, the magnitude of which hadn’t been seen in a century. Two years after that, the numbers are chilling: over 79 million people were infected, at least 878,613 were hospitalized, and 971,968 have died.
As bad as these numbers are, things would have been much worse if the ACA hadn’t come to pass. The ACA created an essential safety net that protected us from even more devastation. Covering over 20 million more people, it is the single largest health care program created since the passage of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965. Thanks to the ACA:
- The estimated 9.6 million people who lost their jobs during the pandemic didn’t have to worry as much about finding health care coverage if they got sick from Covid (or anything else) – they could shop for subsidized insurance on the public exchanges or apply for Medicaid. This helped millions of people to stay covered, which saved thousands of lives. In fact, the overall rate of uninsured people has not increased significantly during the pandemic, thanks to the safety net of these public health care programs.
- The 79 million people who got Covid didn’t have to worry about whether their infection’s aftermath would result in acquiring a pre-existing condition that would prohibit them from buying health insurance in the future (if they couldn’t get coverage through their jobs).
- Those who were burnt out from the pandemic and joined the Great Resignation did not have to worry that they would be locked out of health insurance coverage while they took a break or looked for a new job. According to the Harvard Business Review, resignation rates are highest among mid-career employees (those between 30 and 45 years old), a stage of life when health insurance is critical, given the formation of families and the emerging health issues that come with age.
The ACA’s remarkable safety net framework made it far easier for policy makers to deploy federal funds during this unprecedented emergency. The American Rescue Plan Act , a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill signed by President Biden on March 11, 2021, included provisions that built on the ACA, including more generous premium tax credit subsidies. Its predecessor, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) of 2020 enhanced Medicaid funding and required states to provide continuous Medicaid coverage.
- For working- and middle-class people, the health insurance exchanges (both state and federal) provided one-stop shopping with enhanced federal subsidies which made health insurance more accessible for people who lost their employer-sponsored insurance. Many Americans who needed health insurance turned to the ACA marketplaces to find a plan. Amid the recent surge in resignations, the Biden administration announced that sign ups hit an all-time high of 14.5 million when open enrollment ended in January 2022.
- For lower income people, the Medicaid program was there, stronger than ever, thanks to 38 states opting into the ACA’s expansion of the program. An increased federal matching contribution helped states to finance Medicaid enrollment during the worst of the economic downturn and prevented Medicaid disenrollments.
- Additional benefits from these measures included reducing health disparities, ensuring mental health coverage, and helping new moms with more robust coverage.
Despite the ACA’s strong foundation and the many good things worth celebrating on its twelfth anniversary, there are difficulties ahead. The expanded premium subsidies and enhanced Medicaid funding are only temporary – both are set to expire this year. With that will come a loss of insurance coverage as people struggle to afford what’s on offer. On top of this, the public health emergency will be unwinding which will bring continuous Medicaid coverage to an end. And there are still too many uninsured people in this country (27.4 million). Retaining the expanded ACA benefits and finding other ways to build upon the ACA’s foundation are critical issues for the mid-term elections this fall.
A recent study shows that support for the ACA and universal health care has increased during the pandemic. We shouldn’t “let a good crisis go to waste.” We need to make our voices heard and commit to building the future. We’ve had to expend far too much energy over the past decade defending the ACA and protecting it from repeal. The pain we’ve endured during this pandemic should not be for naught. Now is the time to assume an expansive posture of building toward universal health care. Retaining the expanded ACA benefits is an important incremental step. As difficult as the pandemic has been, it is providing a once-in-a-century opportunity to address America’s unfinished business in health care. The ACA is an excellent foundation. Let’s build on that so that we have a lasting cause for celebration.
Rosemarie Day is the Founder & CEO of Day Health Strategies and author of Marching Toward Coverage: How Women Can Lead the Fight for Universal Healthcare (Beacon Press, 2020). Follow her on Twitter: @Rosemarie_Day1