By Rep. Jim Himes
Last week at the White House, I sat next to John Lewis, hero of the civil rights movement, and watched the President sign health care reform into law. For Congressman Lewis it was the fulfillment of the promise of a just society for which he was nearly beaten to death in Selma, Alabama in 1965. The President’s signature ushered us into the company of every other industrialized nation on the planet in offering each of our citizens a basic level of healthcare.
It’s odd that this was so controversial. It is a core American value that we defend and protect our own. When terrorists fly planes into our buildings and murder thousands of our innocents, we stop at nothing to find and destroy them. If fire threatens your life or property, we stop at nothing to protect you. If you are assaulted, we never hesitate to send people and equipment to save you.
Previously, if you got breast cancer, kidney disease, or diabetes, you might have gotten help. Maybe—if you were employed and had insurance; were 65 or older and had Medicare; or didn’t have any pre-existing conditions. If not, you, like tens of thousands of other Americans each year, may have died from inadequate access to health care.
I believe that America looks after its own. On values, I believe that America leads, not follows. But not everyone does. Congressman Lewis was taunted with racial epithets as he walked, still bearing the scars of his Selma beating, to the Capitol last week. And now, as we turn the page on a year of consideration and debate, the American people will finally begin to see their health care system change for the better.
Starting right now, our families, small businesses, seniors, and young people will begin to feel the benefits of health care reform. Immediate benefits include a 35% tax credit to small businesses that provide coverage to their employees and a $250 rebate on prescription drugs for seniors paying thousands of dollars for their prescriptions in the “donut hole.”
Other reforms kick in soon. In June, Americans formerly shut out by pre-existing conditions will have access to affordable coverage provided through a high-risk pool. In September, young people up to the age of 26 will be able to join their parents’ health insurance, and health insurance companies will be banned from dropping someone’s coverage when that person gets sick. There will also be no more lifetime or annual caps on expenditures for the exceedingly ill.
Despite the misinformation peddled by opponents of health care reform, this legislation will not harm Medicare. While the opposition outrageously tried to scare our seniors into believing that their benefits would be cut and that they would face “death panels,” the reality is that seniors will now benefit from a more secure Medicare and from the comfort that the donut hole will be completely closed over time. Remember, the AARP, our nation’s lead advocate for our senior citizens, enthusiastically endorsed the reform.
In terms of reducing the out-of-control increases in health care costs, nearly every proven idea for controlling costs is contained in this bill. These include new requirements for insurers to disclose and justify premium increases; the creation of insurance exchanges to promote competition that will result in more competitive rates for coverage; national pilot programs to increase payments for doctors and hospitals who deliver high-quality care at a lower cost; and new incentives for wellness and preventive care. Over time, some of these provisions will lead to much more efficient care.
Finally, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), this reform is the largest deficit reduction measure in decades. Over the course of the next 10 years, it will reduce the federal deficit by $138 billion. In the ensuing decade, that savings grows to over $1 trillion. The CBO is appropriately required to be conservative, and to substantially discount uncertain savings. Because of this policy, nearly $600 billion in savings over the next decade, as estimated by leading Harvard economist David Cutler in the Wall Street Journal, doesn’t show up in CBO’s budget scores. We know—and economists agree—that these cost savings exist.
Like all major change, health reform is not without risk. Some cost savings ideas will fail. The system will be subject to political pressure just as it is today. But the risks associated with maintaining the status quo far outweigh the risks of reform. Health care costs currently consume one in every six dollars we spend. We spend twice per person what the average industrialized country spends with far worse results, the very definition of inefficiency.
Perhaps most importantly, after a century of failed attempts by Presidents going back to Teddy Roosevelt, through Eisenhower, Nixon, and Clinton, we are finally able to offer all Americans access to life-saving medical care. Now, we can say without reservation that we Americans look after our own.