This spring marks two years since Washington state reported the first two COVID-19 deaths in the United States. During this time, hospitals across the state have dealt with scores of patients, while families and communities have been devastated by the pandemic’s impact.
As the virus and its variants have spread over the past two years, they’ve had an outsized toll on immunocompromised patients who have conditions that make them more susceptible to growing seriously ill, or even dying, from the virus. Many immunocompromised patients haven’t been able to receive critical care, simply because they lack access to affordable transportation options to get treatment. I see this in my own work every day.
Even despite efforts to protect many of these patients, certain groups of patients have been hit particularly hard, perhaps none quite as much as dialysis patients. For the first time since the U.S. started keeping track, the number of American dialysis patients declined due to the impact the virus has on kidney patients. With ongoing difficulties, such as the inability for kidney patients to receive transportation services to dialysis clinics, compounding the damage caused by an unfamiliar virus, patients often had no way of obtaining the lifesaving care they need. They simply have nowhere to turn.
The problem, however, extends beyond just issues with transportation. Dialysis patients bear a significant financial burden to pay for their treatments, especially if they are under 65. Medicare only covers up to 80% of the costs of dialysis treatments, and federal law doesn’t require insurers to offer Medigap plans that can make up the difference to patients under 65. Instead, those costs come out-of-pocket if a patient doesn’t live in a state that requires those Medigap plans to be offered. Given that dialysis patients need treatment several times each week, those costs can be tremendous.
Unfortunately, Washington is one of those states, meaning many of our friends and neighbors are struggling with this exact problem. Patients are unable to afford the care they need, and have little recourse for help.
However, we thankfully have lawmakers who recognize how serious an issue this is for patients across the state. Washington’s own Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler, whose family knows firsthand the difficulties of living with kidney disease, has teamed up with Rep. Cindy Axne to introduce the Jack Reynolds Memorial Medigap Expansion Act to help make coverage more accessible.
By requiring that Medigap plans be offered to patients under 65 who have end-stage renal disease, this bill would help eliminate one of the biggest hurdles confronting dialysis patients in the U.S. today. It would ensure that coverage for their necessary, life-saving dialysis treatments is accessible and prevent patients and their families from having to bear the immense out-of-pocket costs they would otherwise have to pay. It’s a much-needed piece of legislation that has the power to change thousands of lives across the U.S.
As someone who works with kidney patients and who has been personally impacted by kidney disease, I know how big a difference this can make. I hope Reps. Herrera Beutler and Axne will be joined by their fellow lawmakers in Washington, D.C. to help pass this bill and provide overdue relief for America’s dialysis patients. Dialysis patients have been overlooked in discussions of how to improve health care policy for too long, and it is time for lawmakers to step in to help. The Jack Reynolds Memorial Medigap Expansion Act provides the perfect opportunity to do that.
The damage dealt by the COVID-19 pandemic has been another tragic example of the shortcomings of kidney care in the United States, both when it comes to transportation options and access to coverage and affordability. We need our elected officials to step in now and remedy some of the many problems confronting patients, otherwise kidney patients will continue to struggle long after the U.S. adapts to its “new normal.”
Jeananne Edwards is the executive director of Community in Motion.
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