NEW YORK CITY — The city of New York is launching a program to guarantee that every resident has health insurance, as well as timely access to physicians and health services, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Tuesday.
“No one should have to live in fear; no one should have to go without the healthcare they need,” de Blasio said at a press conference at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx. “In this city, we’re going to make that a reality. From this moment on in New York City, everyone is guaranteed the right to healthcare — everyone. We are saying the word ‘guarantee’ because we can make it happen.”
The program, which will cost $100 million annually, involves several parts. First, officials will work to increase enrollment in MetroPlus, which is New York’s public health insurance option. According to a press release from the mayor’s office, “MetroPlus provides free or affordable health insurance that connects insurance-eligible New Yorkers to a network of providers that includes NYC Health + Hospitals’ 11 hospitals and 70 clinics. MetroPlus serves as an affordable, quality option for people on Medicaid, Medicare, and those purchasing insurance on the exchange.”
The mayor’s office also said the new effort “will improve the quality of the MetroPlus customer experience through improved access to clinical care, mental health services, and wellness rewards for healthy behavior.”
For the estimated 600,000 city residents who don’t currently have health insurance — because they can’t afford what is on the Affordable Care Act health insurance exchange; because they’re young and healthy and choose not to pay for insurance; or because they are undocumented — the city will provide a plan that will connect them to reliable care at a sliding-scale fee. “NYC Care will provide a primary care doctor and will provide access to specialty care, prescription drugs, mental health services, hospitalization, and more,” the press release noted.
NYC Care will launch in summer 2019 and will roll out gradually in different parts of the city, starting in the Bronx, according to the release. It will be fully available to all New Yorkers across the city’s five boroughs in 2021.
Notably, the press release lacked many details on how the city will fund the plan and how much enrollees would have to pay. It also remained unclear how the city will persuade the “young invincibles” — those who can afford insurance but believe they don’t need it — to join up. Nor was arithmetic presented to document how much the city would save on city-paid emergency and hospital care by making preventive care more accessible.
In announcing the plan, de Blasio and other officials mainly touted the plan simply as the right thing to do.
“Every New Yorker will have a card with [the name of] a… primary care doctor they can turn to that’s their doctor, with specialty services that make a difference, whether it’s ob/gyn care, mental health care, pediatric care — you name it, the things that people need will be available to them,” said de Blasio. “This is going to be a difference-maker in their lives. Get the healthcare you need when you need it.” And because more people will get preventive care, the city might actually save money, he added. “You won’t end up in a hospital bed if you actually get the care you need when the disease starts.”
People respond differently when they know something is guaranteed, he continued. “We know that if people don’t know they have a right to something, they’re going to think it’s not for them,” de Blasio said. “You know how many people every day know they’re sick [but can’t afford care] so they just go off to work and they get sicker?… They end up in the [emergency department] and it could have been prevented easily if they knew where to turn.”
As to why undocumented residents were included in the program, “I’m here to tell you everyone needs coverage, everyone needs a place to turn,” said de Blasio. “Some folks are our neighbors who happen to be undocumented. What do they all have in common? They need healthcare.”
Just having the insurance isn’t enough, said Herminia Palacio, MD, MPH, deputy mayor for health and human services. “It’s knowing where you can go for care and feeling welcome when you go for care… It’s being treated in a language you can understand by people who actually care about your health and well-being.”
De Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, who started a mental health program, ThriveNYC, for city residents, praised NYC Care for increasing access to mental health services. “For 600,000 New Yorkers without any kind of insurance, mental healthcare remains out of reach [but this changes that],” she said. “When New Yorkers enroll in NYC Care they’ll be set up with a primary care doctor who can refer them [to mental health and substance abuse services], and psychiatric therapy sessions are also included.”
“The umbrella concept is crucial here,” said de Blasio. “If John or Jane Doe is sick, now they know exactly where to go. They have a name, an address… We want it to be seamless; if you have questions, here’s where to call.”
Help will be available at all hours, said Palacio. “Let’s say they’re having an after-hours issue and need understanding about where to get a prescription filled. They can call this number and get real-time help about what pharmacy would be open,” or find out which urgent care center can see them for a sore throat.
Mitchell Katz, MD, president and CEO of NYC Health and Hospitals, the city’s public healthcare network, noted that prescription drugs are one thing most people are worried about being able to afford, but “under this program, pharmaceutical costs are covered.”
Katz noted that NYC Care is a more encompassing program than the one developed in San Francisco, where he used to work. For example, “here, psychotherapy is a covered benefit; that’s not true in San Francisco… and the current program [there] has an enrollment of about 20,000 people; that’s a New York City block. In terms of scale, this is just a much broader scale.”
In addition, the San Francisco program required employers to pay for some of it, while New York City found a way around that, de Blasio pointed out. The mayor promised that no tax increases are needed to fund the program; the $100 million will come from the city’s existing budget, currently about $90 billion.