Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy Commemorating The Six-Month Milestone Of The Affordable Health Care Act

For each of us, our health is among the things we care the most about.  Certainly one of the most common requests any of us regularly make in prayer is for good health.  And of course it is not only our own health we worry about; we also want good health and proper medical insurance for our children, our parents, our siblings – for all those who are important to us.

Medical knowledge and technology have advanced tremendously during the past two and a half centuries of American life, and the pace of medical progress is accelerating.  But health insurance models have not.  The deck has been stacked in favor of the insurance companies, and against the practical needs of ordinary Americans.  For much of the last century Americans have pointed to the obvious need for insurance reform, yet the problems have only grown worse and more urgent, leaving millions of Americans exposed to the ravages of sudden illness and the wasting effects of declining health.

Six months ago today, President Obama signed into law the Affordable Care Act, which will extend health insurance coverage to more than 30 million uninsured Americans in the next few years.  After decades of talk, reform that is based on good, quality, affordable health care is finally becoming a reality.  Over 15 months starting last year, Congress debated and then passed the most sweeping and comprehensive reforms to improve the everyday lives of every American since Congress passed Medicare in 1965.  It was an arduous process, but in the end the achievement proved that change is possible and that voices of so many Americans who over the years have called on their leaders to act have finally been heard.  

Americans are already beginning to see some of the benefits of insurance reform.  First, in states where individuals and families are excluded from health coverage because of preexisting medical conditions, these Americans can now buy insurance through special insurance plans overseen by the states and delivered by private medical providers.  Second, employers across the country already have applied for and have been awarded early retiree reinsurance grants that will reimburse employers for retirees’ medical claims. Third, seniors on Medicare who have high-cost prescriptions typically fall within a coverage gap known as the “doughnut hole.”  Beginning recently, beneficiaries who fall within the gap will receive $250 checks to help cover the cost of their prescription drugs.  

And today, more benefits of real insurance reform go into effect that will help consumers take control of their own health care decisions.  Known as the Patients’ Bill of Rights, these new rules protect consumers against the worst health insurance industry abuses that have prevented millions of people from receiving the health care they need.  Going forward, insurance plans can no longer deny children coverage because of a preexisting health condition; insurance plans are barred from dropping beneficiaries from coverage simply because of an illness; dozens of preventative care services must be covered at no cost and with no co-pay; Americans will have access to an easier appeals process for private medical claims that are denied; and adult children can stay on their parents’ plans until their 26th birthdays. 

Yet another major reform now protects everyday Americans from one of the most egregious insurance industry practices: setting lifetime or annual limits on health insurance coverage.  Wherever I travel in Vermont I am often stopped in the grocery store, at church, on the street or at the gas station to listen to personal, wrenching stories from Vermonters who can no longer get medical treatment because they have met their annual or lifetime maximum.  Many of these Vermonters were perfectly healthy before being diagnosed with cancer or diseases that can cost well beyond their means for treatment.  Instead of being able to focus on getting healthy, patients instead must worry about whether or not their next doctor’s visit will shove them above the insurance company’s arbitrary limit. 

Each of these stories is anguishing.  Let me describe just one of them.  A master’s student from Saint Michael’s College’s graduate school, Ned wrote my office during the health care reform debate to share his story.  A car accident when Ned was nine left him a quadriplegic.  His health care costs since then have necessarily been high.  In fact, recently Ned found that he had nearly met his lifetime limit on coverage from one plan and his only remaining option for health insurance coverage not only contained a lifetime cap on coverage but also a cap on expenses for durable medical equipment, which he uses frequently because of his wheelchair.  But beginning today, Ned and millions of other Americans who fear reaching their coverage limits can rest easier knowing that their insurance will be there when they need it the most.  Ned, and we, can look forward to a lifetime of the contributions that he will make to his community and our country.    

In addition to improvements to our health insurance system that we will see this year, over time the Affordable Care Act will insure 95 percent of our population and make a substantial investment in our economic vitality in the years ahead.  In addition to ending the discriminatory insurance company practices of denying coverage because of a pre-existing condition or canceling coverage when beneficiaries get sick, the new law will lower costs for small businesses and individuals who simply cannot afford health coverage.  And despite the specious arguments from opponents of reform, this bill is the largest deficit reduction measure upon which many in Congress will ever cast a vote.  The Congressional Budget Office estimates that comprehensive reform will reduce the federal deficit by $143 billion through 2019, and by more than $1 trillion in the decades to come.

The Affordable Care Act is a tremendous achievement that will improve the lives of Americans for generations to come.  For decades, we have heard heartbreaking stories about the enormous challenges Americans face because they are uninsured or underinsured.  With each new implementation date of the features of the Affordable Care Act, these stories are becoming fewer and fewer and are being replaced by stories of the success of these reforms, one family at a time, all across Vermont and all across America. 

There is still much more to accomplish, and there are still millions of Americans who are struggling to buy or keep adequate health insurance coverage for their families or themselves.  As these reforms are implemented over the next few years, I will continue to work with Vermonters and the Department of Health and Human Services to help Americans have the access to the quality, affordable health insurance that each American needs and deserves.

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