(Photo Credit: suthisak via Adobe Stock)

Expanding Medicaid has been on the HIV advocacy agenda for several years. Now that North Carolinians are living with the impact of a global pandemic, the need for action on access to care is critical. The value of a strong social safety net for our most vulnerable neighbors has never been greater. By securing more people’s health and wellbeing, the Medicaid program safeguards our entire community, too.

Providing access to healthcare is vital to flattening the curve of coronavirus cases and reducing the individual and community impact of the pandemic. The outbreak presents a unique opportunity for us to expand the scope of care available to Medicaid recipients and to open the program to those who have no insurance because they can’t afford it.

Low-wage workers in Wilmington and across our state are already experiencing economic and medical ramifications of the novel coronavirus. Employees in all industries are at financial and health risk — particularly those working in the major sectors for New Hanover: restaurants, tourism and entertainment industries. Currently, the North Carolina Medicaid program provides health insurance to 33,000 people in New Hanover County and more than 2 million people statewide. Unfortunately, about 1 million North Carolinians remain uninsured. And that number is likely to rise as more people are laid off or see their income dramatically reduced.

State officials have already requested waivers from the federal government, including lifting restrictions on how long someone can stay at a hospital and other screening and enrollment requirements. New federal guidelines for COVID-19 forbid states from making it harder to enroll in Medicaid or requiring cost-sharing for COVID-19 testing and treatment. These are good first steps to a broader expansion of the program going forward.

We know access to affordable healthcare is a crucial factor in responding to community health crises. Medicaid has helped combat the opioid epidemic, which has hit North Carolina and Wilmington hard, by ensuring access to treatment and mental health services. The program has also been an effective tool in reducing the spread of HIV and hepatitis by covering pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and treatment for people living with hepatitis and HIV.

The General Assembly reconvenes this summer to address our response to the coronavirus outbreak. Medicaid expansion must be on the agenda. In the near-term, expansion will help us combat COVID-19. Down the road, it will help us respond more quickly to future pandemics and keep more North Carolinians healthy and well.

Jeff Mills is a volunteer and Medicaid Ambassador with the NC AIDS Action Network. He lives in Wilmington, N.C. Lee Storrow is the executive director of the NC AIDS Action Network and lives in Chapel Hill, N.C.