AUGUSTA — As I read holiday cards from friends and family, with so many that called on me to “have a happy and healthy 2016,” I can’t help but think about the disconnect between this common wish and the reality of what the new year holds for many in Maine.

The 15 percent of Maine adults who have no health insurance are at high risk of having neither a happy nor a healthy year. Any one of them who becomes ill, suffers an accident or receives a diagnosis of a chronic disease will face big challenges in getting and paying for health care.

Two recent survey reports show the stark realities that uninsured Maine people are likely to face in 2016. In spite of the expansion in health insurance coverage across much of the nation, the likelihood of being uninsured in Maine didn’t really change from 2013 to 2014. But the surveys also demonstrate that there were shifts in how people get their insurance.

More Maine people now have private insurance, likely because of the success in enrolling people in plans on the Affordable Care Act Health Insurance Marketplace. However, fewer people have coverage through MaineCare, Maine’s Medicaid program.

Those who have lost MaineCare coverage in recent years are typically young adults, especially men, and parents of young children. These are the very people who fall into some of Obamacare’s coverage gaps. They earn too little to get subsidies to buy marketplace health plans, and they typically cannot afford coverage through their employer. Some states have taken creative steps to expand coverage for these important groups.

Why does this matter? Because health care is expensive. Compared to their neighbors who have insurance, uninsured Maine people are four times less likely to see a doctor for needed care and three times more likely to be unable to afford needed medications.

Over the past two years, the number of uninsured Maine people having difficulty paying medical bills has increased by about 10 percent, while nationally, the rate of those pressed to pay for health care has declined. The Institute of Medicine has examined the relationship between health insurance and medical care and found that for working-age Americans, those who are uninsured are more likely to receive too little medical care, receive care too late or receive poorer care when in the hospital, even for emergencies like a car crash.

The negative effects of people lacking health insurance spill over onto family members and into the health system as a whole. Insured children are less likely to get needed health care services when their parents are uninsured, even though the costs would be covered. And Maine’s nonprofit health care providers, like hospitals and federally qualified health centers, bear the brunt of providing care to individuals who cannot pay for services.

Lack of insurance can be deadly for individuals and has broader ramifications for our communities. The Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured found that people without health insurance are 10 to 15 percent more likely to die, just because they’re uninsured.

They also found that better health improves educational attainment and annual earnings. The bottom line is that health insurance coverage and better access to health care mean that more people can work and enjoy productive lives.

Nobody would wish someone else an unhealthy new year. As you wish those in your lives “a happy and healthy 2016,” I urge you to think about the meaning behind those words – and about what we can all do to make that wish a reality for more people in Maine.

Promoting the expansion of health insurance options, and making a commitment to helping more people in Maine get coverage can benefit all of us. Can we commit to this New Year’s resolution, for the good of our state?

— Special to the Press Herald