Nevada needs a public health insurance option now

May 25, 2021 5:03 am

Serious illnesses or accidents don’t discriminate, but our health insurance system sure does. (Photo: Don Murray, Getty Images)

Four years ago, I was just another successful and healthy small business owner in Las Vegas, or so I thought. I walked into a doctor’s office in Henderson that day with a nagging cough, and walked out with a stage 4 cancer diagnosis.

I’m still here today, in remission, thanks to the care I received. Staying alive is priceless, but also not cheap. It cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to save my life. My out-of-pocket medical costs in 2017 were $12,579.08—not easy to cover but nothing like what I would have faced if I hadn’t enrolled in an Affordable Care Act (ACA) insurance plan. If I still had the junk insurance I carried before the ACA, I would be bankrupt or dead.

But the ACA hasn’t entirely solved the problem of ensuring that all people in Nevada can afford their care. That’s why Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro has put forward SB 420, a new public option on the state’s health insurance exchange to lower the cost of health insurance for Nevadans. The Nevada Public Option’s goal would be to reduce premium costs by 15 percent over 4 years. 

I’m lucky I was able to afford my unexpected medical expenses, but how many Nevadans can? Before the pandemic, 57 percent of Americans couldn’t afford an unexpected $500 expense and 19 percent were already burdened by medical debt. This problem is only growing.

Nevada has the fifth highest unemployment rate in the country right now. Without a  job and the health insurance that comes with it, tackling a five or six figure medical expense is an impossibility, but also a reality that many face. 

Add to that, that many small business owners and self-employed people are struggling financially too, especially through this pandemic. We need more options for health insurance that we can actually afford. 

The existing individual health insurance market in Nevada can be unstable. At the end of 2017, I had to find a new insurer because Anthem pulled out of the Nevada ACA market entirely. So I had to go through the whole process of figuring out which insurer covered my oncologist, cardiologist, and medical team, and then had to get reauthorized to see my doctors. We should not have to worry about losing our care team and needing to find new doctors, especially in the midst of this pandemic. 

The instability of limited providers in the market a few years ago meant that briefly some counties in Nevada were “bare”, with no insurance providers at all. We need more options and competition in the market, to serve all Nevadans. 

Sitting in the chemo room, going through my biweekly treatments, I had a lot of time to observe the other people around me. The patients receiving treatment did not reflect the full diversity of Nevada, unlike the amazing nurses and aides giving us care. 

How many lower income people and people of color cannot afford insurance, and were never able to receive a diagnosis in time to receive the care they would have needed? The empty seats and missing faces in that room are an indictment of our existing insurance market. Cancer and other serious illnesses or accidents don’t discriminate, but our health insurance system sure does. Too many are priced out of care today. 

The Affordable Care Act saved my life, but there is more work to be done. Health care costs are still too high for Nevadans, and we all pay the price for that. We need a public option and we need it now, or more Nevadans will suffer without insurance or without the care they need. Please contact your legislators today and ask them to support the Nevada Public Option, SB420. 

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Laura Packard
Laura Packard

Laura Packard is a small business owner and health care advocate, and founder of Health Care Voices, a non-profit grassroots organization for adults with serious medical conditions, senior advisor to Be a Hero, and co-chair of Health Care Voter.