John Zaccheo and Kael Weston: Much work still to be done as ACA turns 10

This screen grab from the website HealthCare.gov shows the extended deadline for signing up for health care coverage for 2020. (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services via AP)

Later this month will mark an important date. March 23 will be 10 years since the Affordable Care Act became law.

While criticized by some as Obamacare, the legislation remains an example of what we should expect from our government: a public policy focused on the public good. Arguably no area is more important right now for tens of millions of Americans than improving access to and the quality of health care for our families.

Public education has long enjoyed consensus as a worthwhile and wise public investment. Why not our communities’ health? In 2020, we should be united on this question, not divided.

One of us writes as a 92-year old who has seen the U.S. health care market change significantly across many decades: from a time when families could expect good coverage to today’s concerns about being bankrupted when medical bills are due.

The other one of us writes as someone who once benefitted from premier, no-worries medical care while employed by the U.S. State Department. But since leaving that job, the ACA’s individual market has become an annual uncertainty when “renewal” (10-days-to-decide) notices arrive in the mailbox.

Like many Utahns, we have family members caught up in insurance companies’ fine print. A spouse who turned 82 this week and might soon need full-time care at exorbitant cost. A father whose lung cancer diagnosis led him to advise, “Don’t get cancer if you’re under 65.” Without Medicare, he could not afford chemotherapy and related bills that so far total over $150,000.

In some key measures, the U.S. ranks low internationally: life expectancy, infant mortality and unmanaged diabetes. Utah politicians from both parties deserve credit for addressing insulin prices in our latest legislative session. For such a wealthy country, such statistics should be unacceptable. Instead, it seems many of our elected leaders continue to choose a nonchalant attitude all the while enjoying themselves top-quality care and at very low cost.

This is wrong. This kind of health care bubble in Washington, D.C., perpetuates the problem. A sense of urgency does not readily flow from congressional benefits packages that insulate elected officials from realities the rest of us face. Perhaps politicians’ health care benefits should be indexed to ours? Or, better yet, ours to theirs.

The ACA anniversary and this presidential election put into focus our nation’s persistent health care challenges — but also new opportunities. Democrats largely favor expansion of coverage, albeit differing on how quickly to shift the U.S. toward implementing a government option, and the lowering of drug prices. The 2010 law has helped bring medical coverage to an estimated 20 million more Americans, though approximately 27 million still remain uninsured. In opinion polls the ACA is now supported by a majority of the American people.

In contrast, President Trump and many Republicans insist on challenging ACA protections in court. Their lawyers (paid by taxpayers) argue that the legislation is unconstitutional. The GOP as a whole unfortunately appears to treat the matter as political gamesmanship because it was President Obama and Democrats who got the ACA passed.

As the courts take up this question, we should be reminded that attacking the government’s role and expertise in health care delivery weakens our country’s ability to deal with a true crisis – and coronavirus is that. After years of cutbacks and the departure of federal-level medical professionals, the U.S. is struggling to battle this emerging pandemic. Donald Trump’s incompetent administration has been caught both short-sighted and under-prepared. At the ballot box this November, let’s keep in mind which candidates believe public health is worth investing in. Then work hard to get them elected.

The Affordable Care Act has helped millions of American families. This is a fact. On this 10-year anniversary, let’s remember how worse off we would be without it. And then join together in making sure we improve the law versus abandon it and leave behind uninsured neighbors from Bountiful to St. George. Paid sick leave, just one example, could help slow the spread of coronavirus. Another fact: in states where Medicaid has been expanded, healthier communities have been the result.

Public health in our Beehive state and throughout our country should be a shared political priority and sufficiently resourced, whether the times are good – or bad. It certainly should not take a national health scare, now global in scope, to get our leaders to do the right thing on our behalf.

John Zaccheo

John Zaccheo, a 92-year old Rotarian, is a former pizza and Italian restaurant owner and business executive, who has called Utah home for almost five decades.

Kael Weston

Kael Weston, author, teacher, former State Department official, and Rotarian, is seeking the Democratic nomination in Utah’s 2nd Congressional District. www.westonforcongress.com