Across North Carolina, more than half a million people are locked out of health care because health insurance is out of reach. Many of these uninsured people are living with disabilities. Family members and caregivers of people with disabilities are also disproportionately uninsured. State legislators have come up with several proposals this year to solve the problem. Providing health coverage to this uninsured population could have profound economic benefits.

Whether legislators choose to take Gov. Roy Cooper’s proposal to expand Medicaid, or go with the solution proposed by House Republicans, led by Rep. Donny Lambeth, there is no doubt that the outcome would be improved access to health care for people with disabilities in North Carolina.

In 37 other states, Medicaid expansion has provided coverage to millions of people with disabilities who do not qualify for federal disability benefits, yet have serious disabilities. Getting affordable health coverage to more of these folks helps them remain healthy, stay in the work force, live their lives to the fullest and contribute to our communities.

What’s more, covering the low-income uninsured could make it easier for all people with disabilities to get the services they need. States that have taken the federal funds to cut the ranks of uninsured persons have decreased their waiting lists for Home and Community Based Services for people with disabilities. Former Republican Gov. John Kasich of Ohio recently visited North Carolina to describe the positive impact that expanding Medicaid has had in his state. One key impact: the waitlist for Home and Community Based Services in Ohio has decreased since that state closed its “coverage gap.” The states with the longest wait lists for these services – including North Carolina – are states that have so far refused to take advantage of the opportunity presented by Medicaid expansion funds.

Just as important as caring for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, is supporting their caregivers. Parents of children with disabilities often have to give up their jobs to work full-time keeping their children healthy and safe. The catch-22 is that caring for a child with special health care needs is not a job that comes with health insurance. There are more than 120,000 parents across North Carolina with no health coverage, which harms their entire families. When parents can’t get basic care for things like diabetes, heart disease, depression or a simple physical injury, minor problems quickly become a crisis. Caring for any child is a tough job, but parents of kids with disabilities have an extra hurdle. They should not have to sacrifice their own health, or take on unmanageable medical debt, in order to do it.

Finally, many people who live with disabilities do not necessarily meet the criteria to qualify for programs like the Innovations Waiver. They aren’t on the wait list and are not getting the care they need, simply because they don’t have a job that comes with health insurance. Every person deserves the opportunity to provide for themselves and contribute to their community. Locking people out of the health care system can rob them of this chance.

Disability Rights NC commends Sen. Joyce Krawiec and her colleagues for increasing funding for the Innovation Waivers program in the Senate budget proposal. Cutting down the waiting list will help more people get the support they need to live healthy lives and avoid costly, unwanted institutionalization. However, we shouldn’t stop there.

North Carolina has affordable opportunities this legislative session to cover many additional people with disabilities who are currently locked out of health care. We sincerely hope that Sen. Krawiec and her colleagues in the Senate will wisely allow North Carolina to accept the billions in federal funding available right now to get affordable health coverage to more low-income people in North Carolina who urgently need it. They could unlock life-saving health care for a very significant population of people living with disabilities, who today lack the hope of getting the care they need and deserve.

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Virginia Knowlton Marcus is the CEO of Disability Rights NC.

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