February is American Heart Month. During this month, we raise awareness of our nation’s number one killer – heart disease. Part of that awareness is urging our citizens to visit their primary care doctor and learn about risk factors and how to get them under control.
However, for some Alabamians, that call goes unheeded, not because of a lack of will, but because of a lack of access. The sad reality is that hundreds of thousands of Alabama’s most vulnerable residents and families cannot afford the health insurance that they need.
The COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying economic hardships have even further exacerbated this problem.
A reasonable solution would be to expand Medicaid, a program that is largely funded by the federal government and would allow immediate access to care for those who are, or will be, fighting COVID-19.
People with high blood pressure and those who have heart disease or survived a stroke may be more vulnerable to COVID-19. For that group of Alabamians, mortality rates are two to three times higher than in the general population.
Nearly half of Alabama’s residents have high blood pressure and countless more have other serious underlying health issues that make them even more vulnerable to this deadly virus.
Mobile County resident Aqualyn Kennedy knows better than anyone the impact that limited access to care can have for patients in need. As a survivor of cardiovascular disease and stroke and a member of the American Stroke Association Advisory Committee, she understands the challenges many in Alabama face, especially during the COVID-19 era.
“This season of reflection during the pandemic has brought many problems into clearer view around the world and, more specifically, within Alabama’s borders. COVID-19 has been devastating not only due to the number of lives lost, but also in the many ways COVID-19 has negatively altered our lifestyle.
“The impact of COVID-19 is magnified when our friends and neighbors lack access to the health care they need to fight off and recover from this virus. There are also known and unknown negative long-term effects on people with pre-existing conditions.
“While the need for testing and vaccination is urgent, it is even more critical that those who are most vulnerable to COVID-19’s adverse effects have access to the health care they need. Only by expanding access to quality health care can we ensure that the initial damage done will not become a larger, longer-term problem. Finally, given that it’s not yet fully understood how ‘long-haulers’ will be affected in the future, we absolutely need Medicaid expansion and greater access to healthcare for all, including the very populations most affected by this crisis.”
Even outside of the pandemic era, access to care extends help to the vulnerable and allows healthcare practitioners to take a proactive approach to chronic disease. Access to care also gives patients access to preventative measures that can dramatically impact long-term health outcomes and help create a healthier population. After all, a rising tide raises all ships, and helping the most vulnerable among us results in a stronger, more robust healthcare system for all of us.
As many as 340,000 in Alabama could get health coverage right away if the state expands Medicaid. Most of those who would qualify are employed. They include hard-working people who fall into coverage gaps, people like farmers, restaurant workers and the self-employed.
We urge state leaders and lawmakers to act now and provide a lifeline to Alabama residents. Given that heart disease remains the leading cause of death in Alabama, there’s no better time than Heart Month to extend access to care to those who need it most. The time to act is now, as increased access to care will offer a lifeline to those who need it most and help Alabama emerge from the pandemic a stronger, healthier state.