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Diary of a Wimpy Health Care Bill
By Rose Ann DeMoro, Executive Director, National Nurses United, AFL-CIO and California Nurses Association
Passage of President Obama's healthcare bill proves that Congress can enact comprehensive social legislation in the face of virulent rightwing opposition. Now that we have an insurance bill, can we move on to healthcare reform?
As an organization of registered nurses, we have an obligation to provide an honest assessment, as nurses must do every hour of every day. The legislation fails to deliver on the promise of a single standard of excellence in care for all and instead makes piecemeal adjustments to the current privatized, for-profit healthcare behemoth.
When all the boasts fade, comparing the bill to Social Security and Medicare, probably intended to mollify liberal supporters following repeated concessions to the healthcare industry and conservative Democrats, a sobering reality will probably set in.
What the bill does provide
-Expansion of government-funded Medicaid to cover 16 million additional low income people, though the program remains significantly under funded. This limits access to its enrollees as its reimbursement rates are lower than either Medicare or private insurance, with the result some providers find it impossible to participate. Though the federal government will provide additional subsidies to states, those expire in 2016, leaving the program a top target to budget cutting governors and legislatures.
-Increased funding for community health centers, thanks to an amendment by Sen. Bernie Sanders, that will open their doors to nearly double their current patient volume.
-Reducing but not eliminating the infamous "donut hole" gap in prescription drug coverage for which Medicare enrollees have to pay the costs fully out of pocket.
-Insurance regulations covering members' dependent children until age 26, and new restrictions on limits on annual and lifetime on lifetime insurance coverage, and exclusion of policies for children with pre-existing conditions.
-Permission for individual states -- though weakened from the version sponsored by Rep. Dennis Kucinich -- to waive some federal regulations to adopt innovative state programs like an expanded Medicare.
All of these reforms could, and should, have been enacted on their own without the poison pills that accompanied them.
Where the bill falls short
-The mandate forcing people without coverage to buy insurance. Coupled with the subsidies for other moderate income working people not eligible for Medicare or Medicaid, the result is a gift worth hundreds of billions of dollars to reward the very insurance industry that created the present crisis through price gouging, care denials, and other abuses.
-Inadequate healthcare cost controls for individuals and families.
1. Insurance premiums will continue to climb. Proponents touted a "robust" public option to keep the insurers "honest," but that proposal was scuttled. After Anthem Blue Cross of California announced 39 percent premium hikes, the administration promised to crack down with a federal rate insurance authority, an idea also dropped from the bill.
2. There is no standard benefits package, only a circumspect reference that benefits should be "comparable to" current employer provided plans.
3. An illusory limit on out-of-pocket medical expenses. But even in the regulated state exchanges, insurers remain in control of what they offer and what will be a covered service. Insurers are likely to design plans to attract healthier customers, and many enrollees will likely find the federal guarantees do not protect them for medical treatments they actually need.
-No meaningful restrictions on claims denials insurers don't want to pay for. Proponents cite a review process on denials, but the "internal review process" remains in the hands of the insurers, and the "external" review will be up to the states, many of which have systems now in place that are dominated by the insurance industry with little enforcement mechanism.
-Significant loopholes in the much touted insurance reforms:
1. Provisions permitting insurers and companies to more than double charges to employees who fail "wellness" programs because they have diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol readings, or other medical conditions.
2. Permitting insurers to sell policies "across state lines", exempting patient protections passed in other states. Insurers will likely set up in the least regulated states in a race to the bottom threatening public protections won by consumers in various states.
3. Allowing insurers to charge three times more based on age plus more for certain conditions, and continue to use marketing techniques to cherry-pick healthier, less costly enrollees.
4. Insurers may continue to rescind policies, drop coverage, for "fraud or intentional misrepresentation" -- the main pretext insurance companies now use.
-Taxing health benefits for the first time. Though modified, the tax on benefits remains, a 40 percent tax on plans whose value exceeds $10,200 for individuals or $27,500 for families. With no real checks on premium hikes, many plans will reach that amount by the start date, 2018, rapidly. The result will be more cost shifting from employers to workers and more people switching to skeletal plans that leave them vulnerable to financial ruin.
-Erosion of women's reproductive rights, with a new executive order from the President enshrining a deal to get the votes of anti-abortion Democrats and a burdensome segregation of funds, that in practice will likely mean few insurers will cover abortion and perhaps other reproductive medical services.
-A windfall for pharmaceutical giants. Through a deal with the White House, the administration blocked provisions to give the government more power to negotiate drug prices and gave the name brand drug makers 12 years of marketing monopoly against competition from generic competition on biologic drugs, including cancer treatments.
Most critically, the bill strengthens the economic and political power of a private insurance-based system based on profit rather than patient need.
As former Labor Secretary Robert Reich wrote after the vote "don't believe anyone who says Obama's healthcare legislation marks a swing of the pendulum back toward the Great Society and the New Deal. Obama's health bill is a very conservative piece of legislation, building on a Republican (a private market approach) rather than a New Deal foundation. The New Deal foundation would have offered Medicare to all Americans or, at the very least, featured a public insurance option."
Unlike Social Security and Medicare which expanded a public safety net, this bill requires people -- in the midst of the mass unemployment and the worse economic downturn since the Great Depression -- to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket to big private companies for a product that may or may not provide health coverage in return.
Too many people will remain uninsured, individual and family healthcare costs will continue to rise largely unabated and private insurers will still be able to deny claims with little recourse for patients.
If, as the President and his supporters insist, the bill is just a start, let's hold them to that promise. Let's see the same resolve and mobilization from legislators and constituency groups who pushed through this bill to go farther, and achieve a permanent, lasting solution to our healthcare crisis with universal, guaranteed healthcare by expanding and improving Medicare to cover everyone.
Leaders of the National Nurses United have raised many of these concerns about the legislation for months. But, sadly, as the healthcare bill moved closer to final passage, the space for genuine debate and critique of the bill's very real limitations was largely squeezed out.
Much of the fault lies with the far right, from the streets to the airwaves to some legislators that steadily escalated from deliberate misrepresentations to fear mongering to racial epithets to hints of threatened violence against bill supporters.
For its part, the administration and its major supporters shut out advocates of more far reaching reform, while vilifying critics on the left.
Both trends are troubling for democracy, as is the pervasive corruption of corporate lobbying that so clearly influenced the language of the bill. Insurers, drug companies, and other corporate lobbyists shattered all records for federal influence peddling and were rewarded with a bill that largely protected their interests, along with a Supreme Court ruling that will allow corporations, including the health care industry, to spend unlimited sums in federal elections.
Rightwing opponents fought as hard to block this legislation as they would have against a Medicare for all plan. As more Americans recognize the bill does not resemble the distortions peddled by the right, and become disappointed by their rising medical bills and ongoing fights with insurers for needed care, there will be new opportunity to press the case for real reform. Next time, let's get it done right.
Rose Ann DeMoro is executive director of the 150,000-member National Nurses United