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County should keep mill levy to pay for indigent health care

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In a state that strongly values our families, we have too many children and families who don’t have health care coverage. It is deeply heart-rending when kids suffer through illness and sometimes life-threatening conditions. Their parents face the challenge of getting timely care while also dealing with very expensive medical bills.

Our health care safety net in Bernalillo County has helped ease the burden of medical debt, collections and bankruptcy. County taxpayers send $90 million per year to University of New Mexico Hospital to support indigent care for tens of thousands of people each year.

Yet the reality is that the UNM Care program does not serve everybody in need.

Thousands of people are sent to collections each year. The wait times for getting financial assistance programs are long. Bills are complex and payment plans confusing to meet – even for professional navigators.

The eligibility rules can lead to unfair results where low-income children and families cannot get assistance.

We are now at an important crossroads.

Our safety net needs are changing. With the Affordable Care Act, more people will be able to get Medicaid and health insurance through the New Mexico Health Insurance Exchange. Even so, the Kaiser Foundation estimates there will be 60,000 Bernalillo County residents who will continue to lack health insurance – half of whom on low incomes.

The solution to this problem rests with the $90 million in property taxes provided for UNM Hospital.

All of us who own or rent property in Bernalillo County are supporting the hospital indigent care programs and we can ensure affordable health care for everyone.

On Tuesday at 5 p.m., the Bernalillo County Commission will meet at One Civic Plaza in Downtown Albuquerque. On its agenda is re-opening the county’s lease agreement with UNM Hospital that governs mill levy funds.

The county will begin a discussion of how to use the $90 million in property taxes to best meet the health care needs of our residents. This is critical to ensure healthy families.

This is the only year the lease can be renegotiated for the next eight years. This is the moment for commissioners to put families first. Not acting means letting UNM Hospital unilaterally decide how our taxpayer dollars are used.

All of the people who cannot access indigent care programs now – including many children and low-wage workers – will continue to be excluded. The future of indigent care for people who can receive services is also uncertain.

For example, UNM has already indicated that it may not help people who do not buy a health plan on the exchange – despite serious problems with these plans being unaffordable for working poor families.

These families will likely be sent to collections for unpaid hospital bills. If Congress fails to fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program next year, thousands more children will also be caught in this affordability gap.

Our children will pay the price of a broken safety net. Studies have shown that families with medical debt are more likely to skip paying other bills whereas low-income families enrolled in public coverage programs report better financial well-being. Children are three times more likely to see a doctor if their parents are able to see a doctor.

The medically indigent will continue to seek health care from UNM Hospital. They must be served and provided with financial help at UNM Hospital, all its clinics and by providers across the county.

Otherwise, unequal access to care and health disparities result, which has already cost the U.S. economy $1 trillion every four years.

Let county commissioners know that we must do better. Your voice matters, especially to the most vulnerable among us who need your help.

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