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Happy Anniversary, Affordable Care Act!

Closing the Coverage Gap: The ACA’s Impact on Young African Americans

By: Portia Boone

In the four years that have passed since the enactment of the Affordable Care Act, I have often thought about what the reform means to me as a young African American woman.  The answers I have discovered enlightened my thinking about the importance of health care, the progress we have made toward creating an equitable society in the United States, and the work that remains to make that ideal a reality.

For too long, our elected officials overlooked an important social justice frontier—the disparate health outcomes among many communities of color.  Young African Americans are one of the population groups least likely to have health insurance, and one of the groups most likely to need it.

African Americans under age 35 are more likely to die from chronic diseases such as HIV/AIDS and heart disease more than the general population.  Many others struggle with health challenges closely linked to poverty such as higher rates of obesity, STIs, and infectious diseases.  Although many of these conditions could be prevented or managed through regular medical treatment, 31 percent of African Americans ages 18 to 34 are uninsured, compared to only 20 percent of their white counterparts.

In addition to serving as a predictor of health outcomes, insurance coverage directly impacts economic mobility and financial security.  Medical expenses account for nearly two-thirds of all bankruptcies.  The out of pocket expenses for treatment for common ailments such as diabetes, mental illness, and injuries can exceed $20,000.  However the median net worth for black households was only $6,446 in 2011.  The consequences of this financial reality are grim. With less wealth and higher rates of uninsurance, too many young African Americans are only one illness away from financial disaster.

Fortunately, the ACA can start to level that playing field. Now, as many as three million uninsured young African Americans can get covered for free or at a very discounted rate.  Even better, these consumers can get more bang for their buck thanks to the law’s benefit standards and consumer protections. No longer can insurance companies deny or discontinue coverage for individuals suffering from chronic health conditions, which disproportionately plague the African American community.

While I was aware of these statistics, the ACA’s true value didn’t hit home until a recent visit I made with my coworkers to a health care enrollment event at a local Baptist church.  The organizer of the event was a vibrant young woman named Aqualyn who told me how her insurance plan dropped her for having a pre-existing condition after being hospitalized and having an emergency surgery.  She searched for coverage under an alternative plan for years to no avail, until finally she was able to get covered through a plan offered under the ACA.  One month later, she suffered a heart attack.  For her, health coverage was much more than an arcane body of law; it was a resource that made the difference between life and death.

For Aqualyn, for me, and for millions of others, the ACA is a source of security and can be a catalyst for upward mobility and addressing inequities. While a great deal of work remains in the fight to address health disparities, even the longest of journeys begins with a single step.  The ACA has given the African American community a strong first step in the right direction.  So let’s get to walking. Let’s get covered before the March 31st deadline to have health insurance.