Health care overhaul takes root in divided U.S.

8:42 AM, Mar 21, 2011   |    comments
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WASHINGTON - A year after President Obama signed his health care overhaul, the law remains so divisive that Americans can't even agree on what to call it. Even so, it is taking root in the land.

Whether it grows is another matter.

Polls show that about 1 in 8 Americans believe they have been personally helped already, well before the main push to cover the uninsured scheduled for 2014.

Still, issues of affordability and complexity guarantee ongoing problems, even if the Supreme Court upholds the landmark legislation that made health insurance both a right and a responsibility.

Supporters call it the Affordable Care Act, a shortened version of the official title Democrats gave their massive bill. It may be better known as "Obamacare," the epithet used by Republicans seeking its demise.

While Obama returns from Latin America on the signing anniversary Wednesday, administration officials will fan out across the country. Community commemorations that start Monday come as the health care battle moves to the states. Even states suing to nullify the law's requirement that most Americans carry health insurance are proceeding with building blocks of the new system.

Families, small businesses and seniors are starting to feel the impact of dozens of already in place. Interviews with people affected reveal it's not always clear-cut.

In small-town Circleville, N.Y., Patti Schley says the law has made a dramatic difference.

Her daughter Megan, 23, was out of college, going without insurance as she tried to launch a wedding photography business. Last summer Megan started getting sick and rapidly lost weight. Doctors diagnosed a serious digestive system disorder that would make her uninsurable.

But her parents were able to get her into a high-risk insurance pool created under the law, and this year Megan signed up for her father's workplace plan, under a provision extending coverage for adult children up to age 26.

"As a mother of a sick child, you are concerned whether your kid is 4 or 24," said Schley, an office administrator. "We couldn't wait for this to kick in."

Things are working out for the Schleys, but the high-risk pools that provided the initial lifeline for Megan are faltering. Nationally, the latest count shows fewer than 12,500 people signed up, mainly because of waiting periods and high premiums.

Another mom with an uninsured daughter ran into a Catch-22 that illustrates the law's complexity.

Mary Thompson of Overland Park, Kan., was sure the law would finally let them get 11-year-old Emily on the family's health insurance.

Insurers had repeatedly rejected Emily due to a birth defect of the spine, surgically corrected when she was an infant. The law requires insurers to accept children regardless of pre-existing health problems, a safeguard that will extend to people of all ages in 2014.

But because Emily's father is self-employed and the family buys its own coverage, things didn't work out as expected.

Certain "grandfathered" plans selling individual coverage are exempt from the law's requirement to cover kids. The Thompsons' plan was one. That meant they would have to apply for a whole new policy, and the mother, a breast cancer survivor, was unlikely to be accepted.

"We would have had to start over with me - and I can't start over," said Thompson. A social worker helped get Emily into Medicaid.

In neighboring Missouri, an insurance company's campaign to get small businesses to sign up by taking advantage of new tax breaks has yielded mixed results.

One of the chief promoters of the idea is Ron Rowe, an executive of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City. With some 150 previously uninsured businesses offering new coverage, his company's efforts earned the praise of Obama administration officials. But Rowe says many business owners found the math didn't work for them.

"The longer this has been out in the marketplace, the less appealing it's been to small-business owners," he said. A typical employee with 10 workers would have to pay about $31,000 a year for health insurance and recover only 10 percent to 15 percent of that through the new tax credit.

Rowe says his company is getting more interest from business owners by offering a cap on rate increases.

No group is more sensitive to medical costs than senior citizens, whose votes are also critical to Democrats' chances in the 2012 presidential election. So far, alarms that Medicare cuts would compromise their care have not been borne out. But Democratic lawmakers engineered the cuts to take effect gradually, while new Medicare benefits are being provided up front.

Topping the list this year is a 50 percent price cut on brand-name prescriptions for Medicare recipients who fall into the coverage gap called the "doughnut hole." Daniel Wisniewski, a retired truck driver from Staten Island, N.Y., reckons that will reduce the price of one of his heart drugs from $234.99 a month to around $117.

"I'm not much on politics, but I feel that that's got to help me," said Wisniewski, 69. "I worked and paid into Social Security for 55 years. When I was a kid I used to wash dishes in a bakery after school."

Republicans say such gains will be temporary. For families, "any marginal benefits from this law are far outweighed by the heavy-handed intervention in their health care by Washington bureaucrats," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

One of the principal authors of the bill, Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, says he laments not devoting more attention to cost control up front as lawmakers worked to expand coverage. "It gave detractors an opening," he said.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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