Op-ed: Decision on health care bill critical for all Americans

Two state representatives say the new health care proposal could worsen the health care crisis in Pennsylvania and across the nation.

By State Reps. Thomas P. Murt and Michael Schlossberg

The discernment by our elected officials in Washington over the newly proposed American Health Care Act should be thoughtful and thorough. It should also meticulously consider the impact of this proposed new law on the good people in our commonwealth, especially those suffering a serious mental illness. As members of the Human Services Committee and the Mental Health Subcommittee in Harrisburg, and as advocates for Pennsylvanians who desperately need health care coverage the most, this proposal is a cause for great concern.

Part of the AHCA calls for the elimination of Medicaid coverage for many Pennsylvanians. In the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Medicaid provides coverage to 2.8 million working-class and lower-income Pennsylvanians, which represents 22 percent of our population. Medicaid provides critically important preventive services such as vaccines, well-child visits and life-saving treatments for chronic diseases such as cancer, opioid addiction, liver disease and Hepatitis C.

In Pennsylvania, Medicaid also provides outpatient services to over half a million of our family members who suffer from a serious mental illness. Medicaid empowers these individuals to remain in a supportive family setting and to continue to work and pay taxes, and to avoid incarceration or costly inpatient hospitalization. Many of these men and women are firmly on the road to recovery.

People living with serious mental illnesses are one of our most vulnerable populations, and in all candor, a population whose needs and care have been underfunded for decades. The lack of adequate funding has already resulted in closures and mergers of community-based services, and diminished proximity of services to people who need them. This is especially true in the most rural parts of Pennsylvania, where a person in need of therapy or counseling often has to travel great distances to access the services they need to be well.

As a Medicaid expansion state, the loss of Medicaid funding for our commonwealth will be nothing short of devastating for our brothers and sisters who suffer from a serious mental illness, the professionals who compassionately treat them and the family members who care for them.

Medicaid expansion in Pennsylvania has provided healthcare to over 159,000 new people who suffer from a serious mental illness. This means more recovery-oriented treatment, community care and supports that enable these individuals to live in the community and lead independent and productive lives.

In short, for people with a serious mental illness and their families, less treatment options will mean longer delays, missed work, isolation from support networks, and missed opportunities to get people on the road to recovery. The lack of mental health services will also surely result in more of these individuals ending up in prison. Prison is not the most favorable place to treat people with a serious mental illness, but it is much more expensive. In Pennsylvania, 29 percent of our prison inmates suffer from a mental illness. Had these men and women received the treatment they needed, it is very possible they would not be in the much more costly prison system now.

With access to the right care, people can and do recover from mental illness and we must preserve this access to Medicaid. Understandably, the problems in our health care system need to be addressed, but taking away health care coverage for almost 3 million Pennsylvanians is a non-starter. The Affordable Care Act has plenty of shortcomings, but it is not just about Medicaid, as it has also allowed 410,000 Pennsylvanians to access healthcare coverage through the marketplace.

We have only discussed one aspect of the proposed cuts under consideration in Washington. Many other facets of health care face similar challenges, including care for intellectual and developmental disabilities, substance use disorders and traumatic brain injuries.

Unless this new legislative proposal is considered with compassion and a desire to care for the most vulnerable, including those with a serious mental illness, the health care crisis in Pennsylvania and across the nation could become even more urgent. ••

Reps. Murt (R-152nd dist.) and Schlossberg (D-132nd dist.) serve on the Human Services Committee and on the Mental Health Subcommittee in the House of Representatives.