The Affordable Care Act And Social Work

Social work and health care have always been intertwined, and it has often been an uphill battle to advocate for clients without insurance and without access to many of the benefits that come with higher socioeconomic status. But with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, 30 million uninsured Americans received the promise of health care, which will undoubtedly also affect social workers across the country. Here are a few of the changes social workers should expect from the Affordable Care Act:

More Professional Opportunities

One of the biggest changes directly affecting social workers is the increase of jobs available now that there are more people able to access the health care system. Hospitals, clinics and many organizations that work directly with the previously uninsured are now hiring more social workers to not only keep up with the influx of new clients, but to aid them in successfully navigating all of the intricacies of the Affordable Care Act. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the employment of social workers is expected to increase by 25 percent from 2010 to 2020.

More Resources for Clients

Another change directly affecting social workers is the availability of affordable mental health care for their clients. As of January 1, 2014, insurance companies will have to cover mental health services, substance abuse programs and behavioral health treatments on par with physical health services. Various provisions will require benefit packages that also include prescription drugs, rehabilitative programs and wellness services. The Affordable Care Act will also expand access to prevention services, including annual wellness visits and outreach/educational campaigns. In addition, grants will be available to create, evaluate and spread community prevention strategies. This major change will pave the way for not only an expansion of mental health services, but hopefully the breakdown of stigmas associated with mental illness and therapy as more Americans begin to gain access to these services.

Better Coverage for Pre-existing Conditions

Under the Affordable Care Act, pre-existing conditions will no longer prevent someone from being able to access health care. This incredibly important update in policy will change the way social workers find services for many of their clients, but especially for those with HIV/AIDS. Previously, clients who had these diagnoses had to be registered under HIV/AIDS-specific health contracts (like Ryan White) in order to be treated. The Affordable Care Act, however, will allow children with HIV/AIDS (or other pre-existing conditions) to access the same health care as clients without these diagnoses (like Medicaid), and it will provide “pre-existing condition insurance” for adults with these diagnoses.

Because Ryan White is a “payer of last resort” program, those patients who will have access to the new programs must use them first. However, since each state will have significant leeway in creating the new programs, some clients may end up with insufficient benefits, inadequate access to medications or possibly even less than adequate access to care. It will then be up to social workers to see if programs like Ryan White may be able to aid in supplementing some of these costs.


The Affordable Care Act is a major change for the U.S. health care system. Without social workers, who are able to understand these changes and make the transition as smooth as possible, the previously uninsured will be unable to take full advantage of their new benefits. It is for this reason that it is important for social workers to educate themselves on the health care system and on the best ways to advocate for their clients.