By Alicia Huguelet, Senior Director of Public Policy
Historically, the Greater Chicago Food Depository has focused its advocacy efforts on supporting and protecting federal nutrition programs. This remains a high priority as we know that many federal nutrition programs continue to be underutilized, such as school breakfast, after school, and summer feeding – and we must continue to increase access through policy improvements and local advocacy and outreach.
Yet, as part of our work to address the root causes of hunger, we recognize that the families we serve face many challenges beyond hunger in overcoming poverty and stabilizing their lives – including securing healthcare coverage for themselves and their family. The Food Depository recently joined Protect Our Care Illinois as part of our efforts to engage with local advocacy partners on this issue.
I had the opportunity to attend the Families USA Health Action Conference in Washington, DC on Feb. 15-17 which was both enlightening and inspiring. National experts outlined how the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare or the ACA) gave Americans new opportunities to get high-quality, comprehensive health coverage—many for the first time in their lives. Some gained access to health coverage through the expansion of Medicaid (a health insurance program for low-income individuals and families), while others were able to purchase insurance through the marketplace. In Cook County alone, more than 325,000 people have health insurance through Medicaid because of the ACA expansion.
There were also sobering reminders that repealing the health law without a guaranteed comprehensive replacement plan is risky and would put 30 million people across the U.S. at risk of losing healthcare coverage. People shared stories about how having health insurance and the ability to seek treatment saved lives – whether it was due to a screening test that caught a cancer before it progressed or having the ability to afford treatments needed to manage their diabetes.
Some of the workshops also examined the future of healthcare and there is growing consensus that treating and caring for the whole person is necessary to have good health outcomes – which could mean helping patients get access to stable housing or nutritious food. The Food Depository’s partnership with ACCESS Community Health Network and the Cook County Health & Hospital System (CCHHS) is a great example of this. We are partnering on a program that includes food insecurity screenings as part of the healthcare process and offers providers ways to refer clients to the Food Depository’s fresh food resources and/or benefits enrollment support.
We know that the people turning to the Food Depository and our partner agencies are already faced with many difficult choices. Too often, our clients are living in poor health and making tradeoffs between purchasing food or medical care/medicine. The most recent data indicates that 62 percent of clients are forced to choose between paying for food and paying medical bills.
Ultimately, this conference reinforced for me that a loss of health coverage will only make this situation worse for our community and bring more difficult choices for the people we serve. We must join our health partners and raise our voices to ensure that the people we serve not only have access to quality, nutritious food but that they can also see a doctor and get the medications that they need to thrive. Both are necessary to help stabilize lives and end hunger in our community.
Consider sharing your healthcare story. You can visit the Illinois Coalition for Health Access site to be a voice for people who may be facing issues just like yours.