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New Year, New You

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Get healthy (and get covered) in 2015.
by Liz James

January is a big month for our community. On January 9, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has agreed to hear marriage equality cases from Louisiana, Mississippi, and our great state of Texas. Even if we have to wait longer than our friends in, say, Oklahoma, marriage equality is coming. And for those of us who have been fighting for equality for decades, it can’t come soon enough.

At the same time, many LGBT Texans are committing (or re-committing) to keep their New Year’s resolutions to get healthy. Maybe you’ve pledged to lose a few pounds, get more exercise or sleep, or quit smoking once and for all.

The timing couldn’t be more important for the Houston-area LGBT community. Why? Because health, too, is an equality issue. LGBT people are more likely to smoke and have higher rates of HIV and other STIs, mental health issues such as depression, and even cancer. We also face discrimination in the healthcare system: you may have been turned away by a doctor or nurse simply for being gay—or you may not be out to your doctor at all. And one in four low- and middle-income LGBT people do not have the health insurance they need to gain even basic access to a doctor.

This is why the Lesbian Health Initiative of Houston (LHI) is committed to eliminating barriers to healthcare and inspiring health and wellness for LGBT people—regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity—through integrated education, access, and advocacy programs. Our access programs include biannual LHI Health Fairs where uninsured and underinsured LGBTQ women and transgender men can get free mammograms, pap/well person exams, blood screenings, flu shot vouchers, and many other preventive services. Save LHI’s 2015 Health Fair dates: June 6 and November 7.

LHI and Out2Enroll—a national initiative focused on LGBT outreach—is focused on the Affordable Care Act and what it means for our community. We are hosting an event in Houston on January 17 to answer questions about health insurance. Be sure to follow these groups on your social media to learn more. You can also visit Out2Enroll.org/find-local-help to get free enrollment help from LGBT-affirming assisters at places like the Montrose Center, Houston Area Community Services (HACS), Legacy Community Health Services, and many more.

It’s Personal 

Those who know me know that I’m passionate about improving access to healthcare. But the Affordable Care Act means more to me than that. That’s because—for the first time in years—I was able to get covered through the Health Insurance Marketplace. As a cancer survivor, I’ve been repeatedly denied health insurance or charged prices that I couldn’t afford. The Affordable Care Act changed that by giving me peace of mind in knowing that I won’t go bankrupt if my cancer returns.

And it’s not just me. Millions of people—young and old, gay and straight, trans and cis—are getting health insurance through the Marketplace.

My friend and colleague Aurora Harris, 26, also got her health insurance through HealthCare.gov and saved at least $1,600 in healthcare costs in 2014. “I wouldn’t have been able to pay that,” Harris said. “If it wasn’t for the Affordable Care Act, I wouldn’t be able to breathe easier, knowing I have health insurance.”

The Affordable Care Act Protects LGBT Communities

I’ve seen how the Affordable Care Act has improved my life and the lives of those around me. How might it improve yours? The health reform law is an unprecedented opportunity to make sure our LGBTQ families and children have a basic human right—healthcare. This is particularly important in Texas where we have the highest rate of uninsured LGBT families, children, and individuals. Here are some of the key benefits you should know about as we head into the new year: 

  • The Affordable Care Act may be the most significant piece of federal civil-rights legislation for LGBT people. For the first time, it is illegal to discriminate in the healthcare system based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This means that insurance companies—and many hospitals, clinics, doctors, nurses, and other providers right here in Texas—can no longer discriminate against you simply for who you are or whom you love. You have new rights under the Affordable Care Act—make sure you understand them, and educate your friends and family.
  • The Affordable Care Act recognizes your marriage, even if Texas doesn’t. After the United States v. Windsor decision, President Obama made it a priority to ensure that our families were treated as families. Because of this, all legally married same-sex spouses can enroll in a family insurance plan and receive financial help as a family, no matter where they live. As long as you were married in a state that recognizes it—I’m looking at you, Oklahoma—and you file (or plan to file) a joint federal tax return, you will get these benefits because the Affordable Care Act recognizes your relationship.
  • The Affordable Care Act ends discrimination based on preexisting medical conditions and requires insurance companies to cover the treatments you need. Before health reform, insurance companies could charge you more or refuse to cover you altogether if you (or anyone in your family) had asthma, cancer, HIV, high blood pressure, or were transgender. Now, every American has guaranteed access to a health insurance plan, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or medical history. And every plan in the Marketplace has to cover a minimum set of essential benefits that include doctor visits, hospital stays, preventive care, prescription drugs, and mental health services.
  • The Affordable Care Act helps make health insurance more affordable by offering financial help. We know our community wants health insurance. The real question is whether or not we can afford it. Luckily, the law provides financial help so you can find a plan that fits your budget. Individuals whose annual income is between $11,670 and $46,680 (or between $23,850 and $95,400 for a family of four) will be eligible forfinancial help to purchase health insurance through the Marketplace. So far, the vast majority of people who got covered—more than four out of five people—qualify for some financial assistance. Visit HealthCare.gov to see what you qualify for.

The deadline to sign up for health insurance is February 15, 2015. If you don’t get covered by then, you may have to pay a fine—and 100 percent of your medical costs if you get sick or injured.

Millions of Americans have already enrolled in health insurance, and millions more have the opportunity to do so this year. We need to make sure that LGBT people are well-represented in those millions of people. We owe it to ourselves, our friends and family, and our community to be out, be healthy, and get covered.

Liz James, CEO of the Lesbian Health Initiative (LHI), is committed to the continued and growing collaborative pursuit to ensure all Texans, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity, have culturally appropriate, geographically accessible, and affordable access to the healthcare they and their families need and deserve. You can reach her at [email protected]

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