Here’s what Americans can expect this year under health reform laws

Last month, after decades of trying, we finally passed comprehensive health insurance reform.  The law President Obama signed will end the worst insurance company practices, make it easier for Americans to get affordable insurance, and bring down healthcare costs for families and business.  It gives a definitive answer to the question of whether our democracy is still strong enough to tackle big problems.

But our job in government didn’t end when President Obama put down his pen.  Congress passed a great law.  Now, we have to turn legislative language into effective policies.  Here’s what Americans can expect for the rest of this year.

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The first thing the Affordable Care Act does is to provide immediate relief for small businesses and seniors. 

Starting right now, America’s small businesses can add new workers, knowing they’ll be getting tax credits to help pay for their health coverage.  Seniors who have hit the prescription drug doughnut hole will be better able to afford their medicine thanks to the $250 rebate checks they’ll get in the mail starting June 15th. 

Then, in the next two months, two new programs begin to help some of the most vulnerable Americans get and keep their insurance.  For uninsured adults with preexisting conditions, there will be a new, temporary high-risk insurance pool.  For early retirees, there will be a reinsurance program that helps their employers maintain their coverage.  Both provide assistance to make premiums affordable for people with high health care costs.

More new insurance protections kick in this fall.  That’s when it will become illegal for insurance companies to deny coverage to children with preexisting conditions.  Families whose children have cancer or diabetes will go from few or no insurance choices to the full range of options healthy families enjoy.  And most young adults will be allowed to stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26, giving them security as they begin their careers.

These benefits will go into effect in September, but our goal is to make them available as soon as possible.  For example, the under-26 provision meant that some college students were going to get dropped when they graduate in May only to be signed back up in September when the rule takes effect.

That’s bad for college students who might not be able to get insurance for the summer, especially if they have pre-existing conditions. But it’s also bad for insurance companies because they’d have to pay significant administrative costs for each customer they drop only to pay more administrative costs when they sign back up three months later.

So over the last couple of weeks, we reached out to insurance companies, made this point, and asked them to consider allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ coverage until the rule takes effect.  And we’re pleased to report that all of the major insurance companies have agreed to do that, helping to get this important benefit of the new law to people much earlier than we expected.

During the last few weeks, we’ve also been working with states to lay the groundwork for those high-risk insurance pools.  But there’s more work left to do.

Last week, we learned America’s largest insurance company, WellPoint, was specifically targeting women with breast cancer with the goal of canceling their coverage. This practice is outrageous, and the Affordable Care Act will make it illegal beginning in September.  I’ve asked insurance companies to end these rescissions to make sure no Americans lose their coverage when they need it most.

The federal government has a key role in making our healthcare system work better for Americans.   We will put a priority on answering questions people have through weekly Web chats and improved consumer information; set basic standards to foster a competitive insurance market; serve as an umpire to make sure insurance companies treat Americans fairly; provide assistance states need as they design new insurance exchanges; and provide additional resources for the Americans who need them most. 

But this law isn’t about us. It’s about breaking down barriers to give Americans and their doctors more choices and more control over their healthcare.  That’s why another defining characteristic of our implementation efforts will be transparency.  At every step along the way, we’ll  update  Americans about our progress on our website healthreform.gov and through an education effort that will reach into every community in America. 

Our health insurance system wasn’t broken in a day.  And it won’t be fixed in a day either, or even a year.  It’s going to take a lot of work.  But the good news is that after decades of asking when we were going to do something about healthcare, that work is finally underway.

Sebelius is the Secretary of  Health and Human Services.