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Opinion

Expanding Health Insurance Enrollment Will Help Heal New Yorkers and Our Public Hospitals


Carlina Rivera City Council

Council Member Rivera, one of the authors (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


Even in an era of relentless attack on health care by the Trump administration and its allies in Congress, New York City is continuing to reap enormous benefits from the Affordable Care Act. This year alone another 80,000 city residents enrolled in health coverage through our state’s Obamacare exchange.

But a huge number are still being left behind: an estimated 962,000 adults in the five boroughs remain uninsured. These New Yorkers -- many of whom are living in poverty -- often receive no health care until their conditions are severe enough to land them in the emergency room.

The trend is not good for those New Yorkers’ health, as they should have access to preventive care, regular check-ups, and other aspects of quality health care. What’s more, the current situation is also dealing a serious financial blow to our struggling public hospital system (known as Health + Hospitals), whose vital mission it is to serve those in need, including the uninsured. For H+H to avoid financial disaster we need to close the health insurance gap in New York City.

H+H serves over a million patients per year in a network of 11 acute care hospitals and dozens of other facilities throughout the five boroughs. These institutions are by far our city’s largest provider of care to Medicaid recipients, mental health patients, and -- critically -- those who are uninsured.

For decades our public hospitals -- Bellevue, Kings County, Harlem, Elmhurst and others -- have been the ultimate safety net for New Yorkers with nowhere else to turn. H+H’s diverse and committed staff, its proximity to low-income communities, and its sliding-scale fees have helped establish it as second-to-none in serving the neediest New Yorkers.

But balancing the books at our public hospitals has never been easy, in part because Medicaid reimbursement rates are so low. The system’s challenges have only gotten worse in recent years as federal and state safety-net funding has shrunk. And now tectonic changes in the health sector have dealt further blows, as care rapidly moves from inpatient to outpatient services.

The result: H+H is confronting a $1.3 billion deficit this year, projected to balloon to $2.1 billion next year.

This financial strain has real implications for patients, compounding long-running problems in the system. The wait time for appointments at H+H can stretch into the months. Many of the system’s buildings are crumbling, with leaking roofs at Harlem Hospital, deteriorated plumbing at Lincoln, obsolete electric systems at Metropolitan, and elevators throughout the system that are so outdated that their replacement parts are no longer sold.

H+H’s new CEO, Dr. Mitchel Katz, has laid out a multi-pronged plan to address this crisis. He has set out to reduce administrative expenses, more effectively bill insurance companies, and retain more paying patients, among other efforts.

But there is another critical strategy needed to save H+H: New York City urgently needs to enroll more people in health insurance.

Our public hospitals treat over 400,000 uninsured patients each year. That represents hundreds of millions of dollars of lost insurance billing for those eligible for coverage. Providing this health care regardless of ability to pay is the moral thing to do. It also affects the health of all New Yorkers by helping us prevent the spread of communicable diseases.

We need to tap health insurance as a way to make this important work financially sustainable. That’s why it’s critical that we dramatically ramp up our outreach and enrollment efforts.

Today, most funding for ACA enrollment is provided by the State, which spends about $12 million per year on a network of community-based organizations in the five boroughs offering health insurance navigation assistance.

Several City agencies also have dedicated teams doing enrollment, but the numbers are small: only about 50 staff at Human Resources Administration (HRA) and 70 at Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH).

We need an aggressive, coordinated plan to take this work to the next level. And we need to be on the ground in neighborhoods. Community-based non-profits make ideal partners for this work, because of their cultural competence and because of the trust they so often have earned in low-income communities.

One group of New Yorkers can’t get enrolled no matter how much we spend on outreach: undocumented immigrants. But there’s a win-win possibility for them as well. By investing in a program to provide them access to primary care we can improve health outcomes and prevent the more costly H+H emergency room admissions that would otherwise occur.

A twin effort to enroll more New Yorkers who are eligible for insurance and to fund access to primary care for those who are undocumented would improve the health of our people while going a long way to shore up the finances of our public hospital system.

That would be a giant step forward to the goal of ensuring that each and every New Yorker, regardless of income or immigration status, has access to the affordable, high-quality care they need.

***
Mark Levine and Carlina Rivera are members of the New York City Council. Levine chairs the Council’s health committee, Rivera chairs its hospitals committee. On Twitter @MarkLevineNYC and @CarlinaRivera.

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