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JOHNSON: Health reform is expanding coverage

When Congress began debating health care reform in 2009, I heard from many South Dakotans who were one illness or job loss away from losing health benefits. I heard from others who were uninsured simply because they could not afford the monthly premiums for coverage as health care costs soared.

While our health care system worked for some, it was clear that millions were falling through the cracks. Our nation's health and economy were suffering -- something needed to change.

While some continue to debate the merits of the Affordable Care Act, which was enacted in 2010 to address these issues, evidence is beginning to emerge that proves the law is meeting one of its major goals: expanding coverage to more Americans.

Following the first annual Health Insurance Marketplace open enrollment period, recent polls have found a considerable increase in the rate of newly insured adults. A Gallup and Healthways Well-Being survey found that the uninsured rate dropped from 17.1 percent at the end of 2013 to 13.4 percent, the lowest rate since Gallup began tracking the number of uninsured in 2008.

A recent Commonwealth Fund survey also found a significant drop in the rate of uninsured from 20 percent last fall to 15 percent in late spring of 2014. This means there are 9.5 million fewer Americans without health insurance. These findings closely resemble those found by the RAND Corporation in a study released earlier this year that projected 9.3 million adults had gained insurance as a result of the Affordable Care Act.

When the rollout of was not as smooth and seamless as many had hoped, my Republican colleagues continued to deride health care reform and went so far as to shut down the federal government in their effort to repeal the law. Where would those 9.5 million Americans be today had they succeeded?

There is more the law can do to help those who are still without health care insurance get the coverage they and their families need. The expansion of state Medicaid programs to cover certain low-income families and individuals is a critical component of the law. Unfortunately, 24 states have not expanded Medicaid, leaving millions without access to coverage. In South Dakota, this means that up to 48,000 people are left without access to health care for no good reason. Many other Americans were not able to take advantage of the premium subsidies to purchase coverage on the new Health Insurance Marketplaces simply because they were not aware of this opportunity.

I know that individuals on both sides of the aisle want what is best for this country and for the American people. But as health reform implementation continues, it is clear that the Affordable Care Act was a big step in the right direction. More work needs to be done to improve our nation's health care system, but repealing this law will only hurt those who have gained health care coverage. I hope that we can move forward together and continue to improve upon the progress we're already seeing.