Since mid-March, more than one million North Carolinians have filed for unemployment as a result of COVID-19, and therefore, many have likely lost their employer-based health insurance coverage. Now more than ever during this public health emergency, all North Carolinians and particularly cancer patients need access to affordable and quality health care. Expanding Medicaid so that more low-income N.C. residents have access to health care is an urgent need, and it is one of the best tools we have to protect North Carolinians during the COVID-19 crisis.
Increasing Medicaid eligibility could help to slow the spread of the virus by providing low-income North Carolinians who are uninsured — especially those who are newly unemployed or no longer able to afford their health insurance coverage — with access to comprehensive and affordable care, including COVID-19 testing and treatment services.
As a radiation oncologist, I help patients navigate the frightening journey of their cancer diagnosis and recovery. Under normal circumstances, cancer is an unpredictable and life-threatening disease — but now amid COVID-19, patients are scared — not only about contracting the virus but about how they will manage their cancer diagnosis.
A recent survey by the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN) found that half of those surveyed reported some impact on their care due to COVID-19. Additionally, nearly 4 in 10 (38%) respondents said COVID-19 is having a notable effect on their ability to afford their health care — due mostly to reduced work hours.
Medicaid coverage could provide countless state residents — not just cancer patients — with reassurance that their family will not go bankrupt should they need to seek medical care. Additionally, lack of Medicaid expansion has resulted in the closure of six hospitals in rural North Carolina since 2010, closures that result in higher local death rates.
Medicaid expansion can help support our hospitals and health systems by providing them with much-needed revenue to care for current and anticipated COVID-19 patients.
One of the best ways to reduce the cancer burden in our state is to give people access to preventative care. When people cannot afford to get the care they need, manageable diseases can worsen and early cancer diagnoses get missed, leading to poorer outcomes.
In the midst of this pandemic, I can also say with certainty that already hard-hit minority populations and those in rural communities will continue to see growing disparities in health and healthcare coverage if we don’t expand Medicaid eligibility.
Our state legislators have the power to close this gap and ease people’s minds by providing affordable health insurance coverage to those who have been hit hardest during this pandemic — in fact, there is already work being done at the state level on this issue.
When the N.C. General Assembly passed its first COVID-19 relief bill on May 2, it neglected to address Medicaid eligibility expansion, even for lower-income families seeking COVID-19 testing and treatment services. As the legislature reconvenes next week, the prospects don’t look good, either. But I would urge them to reconsider the dire need for Medicaid expansion right now.
Increasing Medicaid eligibility overall is a crucial step needed to help lower-income residents in our state avoid devastating medical bills and financial ruin or risk dying from treatable disease. Additionally, as more and more people in our state are becoming unemployed due to COVID-19—through no fault of their own—it’s lawmakers’ duty to provide them with a basic human need, quality health care coverage. No one should have to do without it, especially during a pandemic.
This is why I’m working with ACS CAN of North Carolina to ask state lawmakers to please include a safety net for our low-income families by increasing access to Medicaid health insurance in the General Assembly’s second COVID-19 Relief package.
Karen M. Winkfield is a nationally recognized health equity and health policy expert and a practicing radiation oncologist at Wake Forest Baptist Health.