Guest Column: Feds will continue to build on Obamacare successes

Sylvia M. Burwell

For more than a century, American leaders have struggled to find ways to extend quality, affordable health care to everyone. We made progress for the elderly, the under-served and children, but for many Americans, the goal remained unattainable.

Nathan Auldridge knew that truth too well. He was a senior in college when he started experiencing double vision and severe vomiting. He was diagnosed with a life-threatening brain tumor and had to undergo a craniotomy and six weeks of radiation. The treatments were successful, and he was declared cancer-free in 2006.

But as a cancer survivor, Auldridge found that a new health struggle was just beginning. In addition to having a pre-existing condition, he had developed narcolepsy. He was suddenly very difficult to insure.

In 2013, Auldridge worked with special needs adults, a job he was passionate about but that didn’t provide health coverage. So he found a plan on the private market for almost $500 a month with a $5,000 deductible. Still, with coverage, his prescriptions and medical expenses were more than half of his yearly income of $20,000. He was able to get by only with help from his family.

But five years ago this week, Auldridge — and millions of Americans like him — found hope in a new law, the Affordable Care Act.

After years of dropped coverage, flimsy plans and barriers to care, everyone’s coverage has improved because consumers have new protections, including those who get health insurance through their employers. They can’t be turned away because of pre-existing conditions; they can’t be dropped just because they get sick and insurance has to cover care that Americans count on, like trips to the emergency room, prescriptions and preventive services.

And coverage is now affordable for millions of Americans.

As of Feb. 22, nearly 11.7 million Americans had signed up or were re-enrolled through the marketplace during this year’s open enrollment. And those shoppers found good deals. Nearly 80 percent of 2015 marketplace customers who selected plans using could purchase coverage for $100 or less per month after tax credits.

And we’re starting to see real progress toward ensuring that every American has access to affordable, quality coverage. Since the passage of the Affordable Care Act five years ago, about 16.4 million uninsured people have gained health coverage. That’s the largest reduction of the uninsured in four decades.

Auldridge found a plan on the 2014 marketplace that, with the help of a premium tax credit, cost him just $111 per month. And this year, it’s even lower — at $100. His new deductible is only $725. And since his prescriptions are now covered, his $1,200-a-month narcolepsy drug costs him only $10.

Across the nation, consumers found quality, affordable health coverage like Auldridge did. They made it clear that this is a product they need, want and like. And they don’t want that coverage taken away.

Our nation has come too far to go backwards.

But as we look at the next five years and beyond, we have a new challenge ahead of us.

Many of the newly insured are navigating coverage for the first time, and it can be confusing. They may not know whom to call or where to go when they are sick. They may not think to take advantage of free preventive services that can detect cancer early or help keep their diabetes under control. And — just as importantly — they may not know what to do to keep themselves healthy.

Our next challenge is making these historic changes work for individuals by connecting people to the services they need. Going “From Coverage to Care.”

“From Coverage to Care” is about empowering people to take control of their own health. It focuses on three priorities: connecting people to the care they need; teaching them how to understand their benefits and their bills; and giving them the tools to make healthier decisions for healthier lives.

If you would like to learn more about how to take control of your health or how to help others, we have created a number of resources, including videos and printable materials, at the website From Coverage To Care.

Five years ago, we laid the foundation for a historic transformation in our health care system. Today, it’s paying off, for consumers, businesses and our economy. And we will continue to build on that foundation, to ensure that everyone has access to affordable, quality care — and knows how to use it. Americans deserve no less.

Sylvia M. Burwell is the U.S. secretary of health and human services. She wrote this for McClatchy.