Business leaders know firsthand that a strong workforce is essential to North Carolina’s economy. We also know that employee health is a big contributor to the strength of our workforce. That’s why the NCEast Alliance Chambers supports a solution to closing the health insurance coverage gap for working people in North Carolina.

A big contributor to good health is having insurance. People with health insurance are more likely to see a doctor when they get sick and have better overall health. And healthier employees are more productive and absent less.

Unfortunately, 13 percent of North Carolinians under 65 are uninsured, and the uninsurance rate is even higher in many rural eastern N.C. counties. These our are neighbors — they are construction workers, retail employees, restaurant workers, veterans and farmers; they are the bedrock of our communities. Currently, a family of four with working parents cannot earn more than $12,000 to qualify for Medicaid. But they earn too little to qualify for federal subsidies to buy their own insurance. They fall into a coverage gap.

I have two women working for me now who pay between $800 and $1,047 per month for health insurance. These premiums consume about one-third of their incomes, which puts a tremendous strain on their family finances. We need to find a health care solution that provides hardworking women like these an affordable option.

The good news is that we can follow the lead of 37 red and blue states and close the health insurance coverage gap. Doing so would allow an estimated 500,000 North Carolinians to gain access to affordable health care, including an estimated 4,500 in Wayne County.

We all benefit from expanding access to insurance, starting with lower health care costs. When faced with a medical condition, those without insurance often have little choice but to rely on the emergency room, which legally must treat them regardless of ability to pay. The cost of this care is passed on to consumers through higher insurance premiums and higher medical costs for those with insurance. That’s why premiums for people who buy their own health insurance are 7% lower on average in states that have closed their coverage gap compared to those that haven’t.

Closing the coverage gap is particularly powerful for rural hospitals and communities like ours in eastern North Carolina. Our hospitals are disproportionately affected when people don’t have health insurance. With smaller margins to operate, rural hospitals often struggle to compensate for patients who can’t afford to pay for their care. Forty percent of North Carolina’s rural hospitals are operating in the red, and five have closed since 2014. We need to close the coverage gap to help keep their doors open.

And here’s the clincher, closing the coverage gap is fiscally responsible. It requires zero state dollars as the federal government pays 90% of the costs and the rest is paid by hospitals and health plans. A report from George Washington University estimates that closing the coverage gap would generate over $200 million in economic activity in Wayne County alone.

There is increasing energy on both sides of the aisle to close the coverage gap. We call on our representatives, Democrat and Republican, to come together and find a bipartisan way to get it done that makes sense for North Carolina.

Bruce Gates is a Goldsboro small business owner and serves as the chair of the board of directors of the NCEast Alliance Chambers.