03/23/2012 01:01 pm ET Updated May 23, 2012

Don't Leave Health Care in the Balance

As the Supreme Court prepares to hear challenges to key provisions of the Affordable Care Act, the health, well-being and financial security of millions of Americans hangs in the balance.

As "economic first responders," the National Urban League and our 97 affiliates know firsthand the crushing burden of a dysfunctional system of health care delivery that denies struggling Americans access to basic, affordable coverage and providers.

It is not a secret that people of color have poorer-than-average health, from infancy through old age. The 2012 State of Black America's Equality Index TM illuminates this disparity, with its "health" rating for African Americans hitting just 76.5 -- in other words, the health status of African Americans is just over three-quarters the status of whites. The Equality Index serves as a kind of statistical shorthand for the chronic conditions overwhelming the black community:

  • African Americans are twice as likely to be uninsured.
  • One in four African American women over 55 has diabetes.
  • Nearly 30 percent of African American girls are obese.
  • African American women account for nearly 30 percent of new HIV infections among all African-Americans -- a rate that is 15 times the rate of white women.

Poor health can lead to a lifetime of disability, financial instability -- low-income families spend a greater portion of household income on health care -- and even premature death. Lack of access to jobs, adequate housing and education only exacerbate the problem.

That is why the need for health care reform is so urgent, especially in communities of color.

President Obama's Affordable Care Act means so much more than improved physical health. It can mean financial stability for struggling families who benefit from manageable health care costs. And it represents a much-needed boost for the economy, through deficit reduction and the boom in health-related jobs. The Affordable Care Act will slash the deficit by $143 billion over 10 years, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.

The Act's repeal, on the other hand, would swell the deficit by $230 billion by 2021. If fiscal discipline is to be considered a litmus test for almost every measure before the Congress, the Affordable Care Act is nothing less than a win-win for Americans and the national economy. Unfortunately, this fiscally-responsible initiative has been used as a political cat's-paw by those who misrepresent its value.

The fact is that the Affordable Care Act already is making a difference for millions of families. Already, just two years after its full enactment:

  • Insurers now are prevented from imposing unreasonable annual limits on the coverage a patient may receive
  • Insurers no longer can deny coverage or charge higher premiums for those under age 19 with pre-existing conditions
  • Dependent coverage has been extended to age 26 for those not otherwise covered by an employer-sponsored plan
  • Health care plans now must cover a full range of preventive services with no deductible, co-pay or co-insurance required.
  • The up-front costs of preventive care often deter people from necessary screenings that can lead to early detection of serious conditions, so requiring full coverage saves both lives and money in the long run.

These common-sense reforms are only the beginning. Provisions that will take effect in 2014 will allow millions more to enjoy a better quality of health and health care, most notably through the expansion of Medicaid to those under 65 with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. Under current guidelines, more than 4.1 million more African Americans will be eligible for Medicaid. The eligibility also will extend to those without dependent children or who are not pregnant. All together, the Act extends coverage to 8 million -- nearly 1 in 5 -- uninsured or underinsured African Americans. New investments in community health centers will further expand access to health care in lower-income neighborhoods.

Opponents of the Affordable Care Act have become ever more strident in their attacks -- framing its repeal through a wholly political lens. We in the Urban League Movement view the Act primarily in human terms. We believe every American should have access to quality and affordable health care solutions -- period. Repealing this hard-fought law would deny more than 30 million men, women and children the ability to seek medical care when they need it, and consign them to a state of health care discrimination. Health care must be accessible for all Americans.