Legislators are returning to Raleigh next week for what they are calling a “health care session.” This is an incredible opportunity for them to ensure that every North Carolinian has access to affordable, quality health care. It’s time for North Carolina leaders to come together to close the health insurance coverage gap.

They have a bipartisan plan. The Healthcare for Working Families Act has passed out of the House Health Committee, twice, with overwhelming support. It’s time for House Leadership to call for a floor vote on HB 655.

While we wait for a vote, more than 400,000 North Carolinians continue to lack access to affordable health insurance. These are hardworking people. They are our farmers, fishermen and volunteer firefighters. They are small business owners, child care providers, service workers and small-church pastors. Many of them are parents raising small children. More than 12,000 are our veterans. The people in the coverage gap are our family and our neighbors.

For them, preventative care isn’t an option. Those with chronic health issues lack access to treatment and medication. An uninsured person may be able to seek out help in an Emergency Room during a crisis, but the ER doesn’t provide cancer screenings … or chemotherapy.

With cancer taking more than 20,000 lives a year in North Carolina, that matters. Uninsured patients are less likely to get screened for cancer, making them more likely to be diagnosed at an advanced stage when survival is less likely. Once they are diagnosed, lack of adequate health insurance often means a lack of treatment. In fact, according to the American Cancer Society, the No. 1 factor in determining whether or not someone will survive cancer is whether or not he or she has health insurance.

We lose another 18,000 N.C. lives every year to heart disease. According to the American Heart Association, uninsured stroke victims have a 24-56% higher risk of death.

This isn’t about politics. It’s about saving lives.

It’s also about our economy. A George Washington University study, funded by the Cone Health Foundation and the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, found that closing the coverage gap would spur business activity and create more than 37,000 new jobs. We would see a $2.9 billion increase in state economic activity, and in turn, a $500 million increase in state revenue.

Across North Carolina, business leaders have signed on in support of closing the coverage gap, because they know it will help their bottom line. When people can get the health care they need, they live healthier lives and are more productive workers. Closing the coverage gap would save our businesses $1,685 in lost productivity per employee per year.

Closing the coverage gap could also mean a savings for everyone on our health insurance premiums. In states that have closed their coverage gap, private marketplace premiums for people who buy their own health insurance are 11-12% lower than in states like North Carolina.

Like too many in our state, I’ve watched as loved ones put off needed medical care because they couldn’t afford insurance. They’re the reason we do this. Fifty organizations across our state have come together to form the Care4Carolina Coalition because they know something needs to be done to help our neighbors. Public health advocates, health care providers, child advocates, economic development organizations — these groups all understand how vital quality, affordable health care access is to our citizens.

We need our state leadership to understand that too. We need them to come together around a North Carolina-based and North Carolina-designed solution to close the health insurance coverage gap. We need a floor vote on HB 655.

Erica Palmer Smith is director of Care4Carolina, a statewide coalition of more than 50 organizations committed to finding a North Carolina solution for closing the health insurance coverage gap.

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