Is the health care reform law a good deal for Americans or is it so badly flawed that Congress should repeal it? Now that the measure is one year old — President Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to law on March 23, 2010 — I humbly suggest we attempt an unbiased assessment of what the law really means to us and where we need to go from here.
To do that in a meaningful way, we must remind ourselves why reform was necessary in the first place. I believe the heated rhetoric we’ve been exposed to since the reform debate began has obscured the harsh realities of a health care system that failed to meet the needs of an ever-growing number of Americans.
Among them: seven-year-old Thomas Wilkes of Littleton, Colo., who was born with severe hemophilia. You would never know it to meet Thomas because he looks and acts like any other little boy his age, but to stay alive, he needs expensive treatments that over time will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Thomas’s parents were terrified before the law was passed because the family’s health insurance policy had a $1 million lifetime cap. Thanks to a provision in the law that makes lifetime caps a thing of the past, they can sleep easier at night.
Another person who faced the real possibility of not being able to pay for needed medical care is Robin Beaton of Waxahachie, Texas. Her insurance company notified her the day before a scheduled mastectomy two years ago that it was canceling her coverage. Why? Because Robin had forgotten to note when she applied for insurance that she had previously been treated for acne.
So Beaton – who told her story to a congressional committee — was a victim not only of breast cancer but of “rescission,” a once-prevalent practice in the insurance industry. The congressional panel – the House Energy and Commerce Committee — discovered that just three insurers had rescinded the policies of 20,000 people over the course of a five-year period, confirming for lawmakers that the practice was widespread and growing. By rescinding those 20,000 policies, the three companies avoided paying for more than $300 million worth of medical care, much of it for critically ill people. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, Beaton and the rest of us will no longer have to worry that our insurance policies will be canceled when we need them most because of innocent omissions on applications.
That same congressional committee discovered during another investigation that the four largest U.S. insurance companies had refused to sell coverage to more than 600,000 people with pre-existing conditions over a three-year period. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, insurers can no longer deny coverage to children with pre-existing conditions. The law will apply to all of us by 2014.
In addition, young people who have not been able to find jobs that offer health care benefits can now stay on their parents’ policies until they are 26. Young adults, many of whom haven’t been able to find jobs or who work for firms that don’t provide coverage comprise the largest portion of the nearly 51 million Americans who are uninsured.
The new law also eliminates copayments for preventive services and requires insurers to establish appeals procedures for denied coverage or claims. And the law has additionally begun to close the infamous “doughnut hole” in the Medicare prescription drug program. Medicare beneficiaries are also now getting better coverage for preventive care. And small-business owners who provide benefits to their employees are being helped by tax credits available for the first time.
Another important provision of the new law requires insurers to spend most of what we pay them in premiums on medical care. In 1993, insurers on average were spending 95 percent of our premiums paying medical claims. That average has dropped steadily ever since. In many cases, especially in the individual and small-group markets, insurers have been spending as little as 50 percent on medical care. The law requires insurers to spend at least 80 percent (85 percent in the large-group market) on health care services or quality improvement activities. Those that don’t will have to pay rebates to their policyholders.
Other helpful parts of the law will be phased in. By 2014, for example, states will have to set up health insurance exchanges, which should help control costs. Between 2000 and 2010, American families saw annual premiums increase 114 percent on average from $6,438 to $13,770, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. While employers often still pay the lion’s share of health insurance premiums, workers are seeing their portion increase every year. During the last decade, worker contributions to health care premiums increased 147 percent. The exchanges, if implemented as Congress intended, should bring down the cost of premiums by fostering competition among insurers. The exchanges will also require insurers to provide data that will enable us to make apples-to-apples comparisons among various benefit plans.
Even after the law is fully implemented, there will be much to do. While an estimated 30 million Americans will be brought into coverage, more than 20 million others will still be uninsured. There’s also still work to be done on addressing the underlying costs of health care in the United States.
But the Affordable Care Act is a start. Let’s consider it just that — a start — and an important one on our shared journey toward a health care system that works better for all of us. If we stop to think for a moment about what needed to be fixed, about why the health care system in the world’s richest country was failing an ever-growing number of Americans, I believe we will want to continue the journey.
Wendell is a Senior Analyst at the Center for Public Integrity where this was originally posted on March 24, 2011.