Healthcare reform: Off to a fast start

When the new health reform law was signed into law in late March, it promised increased access to quality, affordable coverage for all Americans, a crackdown on the worst abuses of health insurance companies and a sharp new emphasis on wellness and prevention. It will be several years until the new law is fully implemented, but Americans are seeing major changes in all of these areas of reform.  Already, for plan years that start after September 23, the new law:

• Bars insurance companies from dropping people when they get sick;

• Bars insurers from refusing to cover children with pre-existing conditions;

• Eliminates lifetime coverage limits and phases out annual limits;

• Requires new plans to cover preventive services and immunizations with no cost to patients; and

•Extends young-adult coverage — regardless of marital or dependent status — up to age 26.

Additionally, the bill created a program to cover individuals with pre-existing conditions who have been without insurance for six months, and many states are already accepting applications.

And the new health reform law is already giving a tax credit to millions of small businesses that provide health care coverage to their employees. This credit is just the first step toward bringing down costs and making coverage affordable for employers.

Media attention has largely focused on the new law’s provisions to extend coverage to the tens of millions of Americans who do not have health insurance. But it also provides critical protections to the great majority of Americans who have health insurance but are still vulnerable to insurance company abuses.

Medicare beneficiaries are also big winners under the new law.  Those who fall into the Medicare Part D coverage gap — better known as the “doughnut hole” — will receive a rebate check for $250. The first round of tax-free rebates was mailed last month, and these one-time checks will continue to be mailed on a monthly basis as additional seniors reach the donut hole.  Over the coming decade, the new law will completely eliminate the doughnut hole.

The new law also creates a temporary reinsurance program to help companies maintain health coverage for early retirees between the ages of 55 and 64. This program is designed to serve as a bridge for employers — including businesses, unions, state and local governments and non-profits — so retirees not yet eligible for Medicare can obtain quality, affordable insurance prior to the opening of health insurance exchanges in 2014. 

Last month, the new National Prevention, Health Promotion and Public Health Council — created by the health reform law — submitted its first report to Congress, setting forth the council’s emphasis on interagency collaboration to prevent disease and encourage wellness. Meanwhile, the Department of Health and Human Services announced the allocation of $250 million for prevention activities and another $250 million for workforce investment, including new clinics and training for primary care physicians and nurses, in FY 2010 funding for prevention activities.  This funding — authorized by the new law — will be invested in activities with a track record of reducing health care costs and preventing disease.  

Early this month, a new website — — was launched to give consumers a one-stop shop for sizing up choices for health care coverage. This is the first website to combine information about public programs — from Medicaid to the new Preexisting Condition Insurance Plan — with information on more than 1,000 private insurance plans across the country. The site’s insurance options finder automatically sorts through a myriad of options to help identify the ones that might work best for an individual, a family, or a small business.

The Congressional Budget Office has determined that the new law will help to insure 95 percent of Americans, while beginning to bend the health care cost curve and reducing the federal deficit by more than $1 trillion in the second decade of implementation.

Our aim is to create a reformed insurance and health care system that works not just for the healthy and the wealthy, but also for all Americans.  We are off to a very robust start.

Sen. Harkin is chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.