Access to high quality care is a right and Congress must do more to help

Access to affordable and quality care is an issue that affects the most vulnerable populations. It’s a socio-economic problem. It’s an age problem. It’s a rural problem. It’s a gender problem. And it needs to be addressed further on the federal level.

President Obama’s historic healthcare package, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), is a big step forward in reforming healthcare in this country. And we are already experiencing many of the benefits of the ACA in Hawaii. 

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For example, 462,000 individuals, including 115,000 children, will no longer have to worry about lifetime limits on health benefits, and 6,000 young adults unable to gain coverage through employment now have access to insurance. As a state that has committed to the Medicaid expansion, Hawaii will also now be able to provide care to close to 85,000 currently uninsured individuals starting in 2014. 

I am proud to support the ACA, but there is still much work left to be done. Congress must do more to address the persistent issue of access to affordable, timely and effective care. Access to healthcare is a basic right. And in this country, every American should be able to get the care they need, when they need it. In Hawaii, we face this problem every day as we seek solutions to growing physician shortages in our rural communities.

With a large influx of new patients expected as the ACA is fully rolled out, our workforce must be prepared. Without enough doctors, many patients may still find themselves without adequate healthcare. 

This problem is particularly acute for Hawaii residents living in rural areas. In our geographically unique state, it may be impossible for some patients to access the care they need before it’s too late.

In this country, 59.5 million Americans — about 20 percent of the population — live in rural communities, many of which face crippling shortages in healthcare. That is why I introduced the Rural Preventive Health Care Training Act.

This bill will provide opportunities for students who are likely to pursue a career in primary care to receive stipends in order to attend community colleges or institutions that are located in and serve rural communities. Reports show that students are likely to practice where they are trained, thus making this type of program a way in which to combat rural health shortages.

In states like Hawaii, where 109,812 residents live in rural and remote areas across five islands, this legislation could change residents’ quality of life. And it expands upon one of the central goals of the Affordable Care Act: access to care for every American.

Our nation’s rural communities are not the only underserved groups in our nation’s healthcare system. Unfortunately, certain racial and ethnic groups face incredible healthcare disparities. In fact, roughly 30 percent of direct medical costs for African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans are excess costs caused by health inequities.

We have known about the disproportionately high barriers to care for our nation’s racial and ethnic groups for some time. Yet we still don’t have the tools to properly combat this inequality. Why is that? Because Congress won’t appropriate the funds needed to collect data on the health disparities these communities face.

What’s most frustrating is that the Affordable Care Act makes explicit that research on health disparities should be a top priority. But Congress must act; and this Congress has been plagued by inaction and partisan brinkmanship. The House alone has voted 37 times to repeal the ACA. It comes as no surprise that Congress hasn’t appropriated the funds to carry out this important work. To correct that problem, I introduced the Strengthening Health Disparities Data Collection Act.

By striking the requirement that funding come from direct congressional action, this opens the door for the Department of Health and Human Services to use its own dollars and discretion to collect this data. This bill would also include standards for measuring sexual orientation and gender identity in the collection of data so that we can better understand issues and disparities that the LGBT community faces. By identifying disparities and their root causes, we can improve our healthcare system, save money and provide the best care possible to the most vulnerable among us.

What we are seeing in Hawaii and across the nation is that Obama’s historic healthcare package is already making massive inroads in improving our healthcare system. From access to care to quality of care, we are seeing improvements.

But Congress must continue to work to ensure that every American has access to quality, affordable care. This is their right, our responsibility, and it reflects Hawaii’s values.

That is why I will continue to fight for common-sense legislation that improves coverage, expands access and corrects inequalities. Through bipartisan cooperation, we can continue to improve our healthcare system so that every man, woman and child gets the care they need and deserve.

Schatz became a senator from Hawaii in 2012. He serves on the Commerce, the Energy and Natural Resources and the Indian Affairs committees.