03/26/2014 05:17 pm ET Updated May 26, 2014

Last Call for Healthcare

In less than a week, we'll realize another important milestone in the long battle for comprehensive healthcare in America -- the deadline to apply for coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The ACA mandates that most Americans must apply for and obtain coverage before March 31 or pay a penalty, and this week is our last chance to take advantage of it until next November. It's our last window of opportunity to do something great -- to better the health of those most likely to live with chronic, untreated health conditions while simultaneously improving the bottom line of our nation's health care system.

Heartland Alliance, the Midwest's leading anti-poverty organization, where I work, is based in Chicago, and here we've been hearing and spreading the enrollment message for months -- the deadline to obtain coverage is March 31 and it's affordable for all. Despite this promise, many of those we serve -- those who live entrenched in poverty -- are fearful of this new health care mandate. For years they've battled homelessness, chronic physical and mental illness, and joblessness. How then can they afford the vital care they've often considered a luxury?

Thanks to the Medicaid eligibility expansions of the ACA, affordable health care is no longer out of reach. Instead, it provides the greatest opportunity to date for those in poverty to get and stay well, and to build and rebuild a stable life. Now, poor single individuals with no dependent children or disabilities -- one of the most often overlooked segments of our population -- are eligible for the program. By expanding this coverage we are making one of the most important investments we can -- we are minimizing human suffering, ensuring each individual in need of care can receive it.

On a more concrete level, however, the coverage offered by the ACA in Illinois and across the country offers a historic opportunity to move from emergency care to prevention on a nationwide scale. Diabetes, for example -- a condition prevalent in low-income and poor communities -- costs approximately $13,700 per year to treat. On the other hand, a preventative screening for diabetes costs approximately $65 at many local health clinics. Approaching treatment from this perspective simply makes financial sense, and we're moving in the right direction. Through both the new ACA insurance plans and expanded Medicaid coverage, affordable preventative screenings can become the norm, saving thousands of dollars per patient. That goes a long way toward balancing the budget, both of the individual, and of our country.

So as we approach March 31, please take a moment to consider your own coverage, and to make mention to your family and friends that in less than a week, the window will close. This is a unique opportunity for each of us, and every uninsured or inadequately insured American should seize the opportunity in these final days. In Illinois, enrollment can be done through or if you're outside Illinois, through