from the New York Times Editorial Page
Published: July 25, 2009
The health care reform bills moving through Congress look as though they would do a good job of providing coverage for millions of uninsured Americans. But what would they do for the far greater number of people who already have insurance? As President Obama noted in his news conference last week, many of them are wondering: “What’s in this for me? How does my family stand to benefit from health insurance reform?”
WHAT ARE THE ELEMENTS OF REFORM? The House bill and a similar bill in the Senate would require virtually all Americans to carry health insurance with specified minimum benefits or pay a penalty. They would require all but the smallest businesses to provide and subsidize insurance that meets minimum standards for their workers or pay a fee for failing to do so.
The reforms would help the poorest of the uninsured by expanding Medicaid. Some middle-class Americans — earning up to three or four times the poverty level, or $66,000 to $88,000 for a family of four — would get subsidies to help them buy coverage through new health insurance exchanges, national or state, which would offer a menu of policies from different companies.
IS THERE HELP FOR THE INSURED? Many insured people need help almost as much as the uninsured. Premiums and out-of-pocket spending for health care have been rising far faster than wages. Millions of people are “underinsured” — their policies don’t come close to covering their medical bills. Many postpone medical care or don’t fill prescriptions because they can’t afford to pay their share of the costs. And many declare personal bankruptcy because they are unable to pay big medical debts.
The reform effort should help ease the burdens of many of them, some more quickly than others. The legislation seems almost certain to include a new marketplace, the so-called health insurance exchange. Since there will be tens of millions of new subscribers, virtually all major insurers are expected to offer policies through an exchange. To participate, these companies would have to agree to provide a specified level of benefits, and they would set premiums at rates more comparable to group rates for big employers than to the exorbitant rates typically charged for individual coverage.
Under the House bill, the exchanges would start operating in 2013. They would be open initially to people who lack any insurance; to the 13 million people who have bought individual policies from insurance companies, which often charge them high rates for relatively skimpy coverage; and to employees of small businesses, who often pay high rates for their group policies, especially if a few of their co-workers have run up high medical bills. By the third year, larger businesses might be allowed to shift their workers to an exchange. All told, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that 36 million people would be covered by policies purchased on an exchange by 2019.
IS THERE MORE SECURITY FOR ALL? As part of health reform, all insurance companies would be more tightly regulated. For Americans who are never quite certain that their policies will come through for them when needed, that is very good news.
The House bill, for example, would require that all new policies sold on or off the exchanges must offer yet-to-be-determined “essential benefits.” It would prohibit those policies from excluding or charging higher rates to people with pre-existing conditions and would bar the companies from rescinding policies after people come down with a serious illness. It would also prohibit insurers from setting annual or lifetime limits on what a policy would pay. All this would kick in immediately for all new policies. These rules would start in 2013 for policies purchased on the exchange, and, after a grace period, would apply to employer-provided plans as well.
WHO PAYS? Current estimates suggest that it would cost in the neighborhood of $1 trillion over 10 years to extend coverage to tens of millions of uninsured Americans. Under current plans, half or more of that would be covered by reducing payments to providers within the giant Medicare program, but the rest would require new taxes or revenue sources.
If President Obama and House Democratic leaders have their way, the entire tax burden would be dropped on families earning more than $250,000 or $350,000 or $1 million a year, depending on who’s talking. There is strong opposition in the Senate, and it seems likely that at least some burden would fall on the less wealthy.
Many Americans reflexively reject the idea of any new taxes — especially to pay for others’ health insurance. They should remember that if this reform effort fails, there is little hope of reining in the relentless rise of health care costs. That means their own premiums and out-of-pocket medical expenses will continue to soar faster than their wages. And they will end up paying higher taxes anyway, to cover a swelling federal deficit driven by escalating Medicare and Medicaid costs.
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