Governor Cuomo and the legislative leaders had a busy week -- redistricting changes, creating a new pension tier, broader DNA collection for criminal activities, and a first step toward legalized gambling. Despite all of that activity one big issue remains: they have to wrap up the state budget.
Included in the governor's proposed budget is the establishment of a health exchange. The exchange is the mechanism through which New Yorkers without health insurance, as well as small businesses that doesn’t have resources to purchase health insurance, will be able to obtain affordable coverage. The theory is simple: by pooling their purchasing power through the exchange, individuals and small businesses can get a better deal -- and one that they can afford.
The exchange is modeled on the program found in Massachusetts. Massachusetts now boasts of covering over 98 percent of its population. It is that model that provided the basis of the federal health care law passed two years ago. Under the reform law, the federal government will pick up the financial tab for states that set up exchanges.
In New York, the issue of health coverage for the uninsured should be a top priority. New York has seen the number of its uninsured swell over the past five years. From 2.3 million uninsured New Yorkers in 2005 to 2.9 million in 2010 – and increase from 12 percent of the population to 15 percent.
If you lacked health insurance, you would look with envy across the border at the residents of Massachusetts. In that state nearly all citizens are covered, while in New York State a large percentage are not.
Being uninsured is not only about statistics or costs. For people with chronic illnesses -- like cancer -- lacking health insurance can lead to devastating consequences. Research suggests that approximately 10 percent of cancer patients are uninsured at the time of diagnosis. Equally troubling, about one-third of cancer survivors report a loss of health insurance at some point in time since their diagnosis.
Research also shows that the uninsured and underinsured are more likely to develop cancer, to have their cancer detected later and to receive inadequate treatment. For example, uninsured women diagnosed with breast cancer are 2.5 times more likely to have a late stage diagnosis than women enrolled in private health insurance.
Another example is colon cancer screening. In 2010, 70 percent of those over 50 years of age reported having had a recommended colon cancer screening. Yet, of adults 50-64 years of age who lack health insurance, only 38 percent received appropriate screening.
When colon cancer is detected at an early, localized stage the 5-year survival rate is 90 percent. After cancer has spread to distant organs, the 5-year survival rate is 10 percent. When it comes to colon cancer, early detection matters.
So, the issue of the availability and affordability of health insurance is not only one about finances, it can be about whether one lives or dies.
It's time for Albany to respond. While the governor and state lawmakers still have a lot to do in tackling the state budget, they must not wrap it up unless they are offering relief to the uninsured and to those businesses struggling to purchase coverage.
Job 1 for Albany must be helping the uninsured.
Blair Horner is the Vice President for Advocacy for the American Cancer Society, Eastern Division. His commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of the American Cancer Society.
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