April 13, 2010

What health-care reform means for R.I.

For more than a century, progressive leaders from Theodore Roosevelt to Edward Kennedy have fought against powerful interests to ensure that every American has access to affordable, secure health insurance.

On March 23, when President Obama signed landmark health-reform legislation into law, that fight was finally won. The real winners will be the countless Rhode Islanders I’ve heard from in the last year for whom the status quo was not working.

So what does health-care reform mean for you? Starting this year, more than 14,000 Rhode Island small businesses will get tax credits allowing them to provide affordable, comprehensive coverage to their employees. The bill will also immediately provide $5 billion in federal support to provide affordable coverage to uninsured Americans who have pre-existing conditions, and outlaw some of the most abusive insurance-company practices. No longer will an insurer be able to drop someone when they get sick, or put lifetime limits on benefits.

And most significantly for the 177,000 Rhode Island seniors on Medicare, health-care reform will immediately shrink the size of the Medicare prescription-drug “doughnut hole” and will eventually close it entirely – something I worked particularly hard to ensure. It will also extend the solvency and security of Medicare by almost 10 years and let our seniors get access to free preventive services, such as yearly checkups and screenings.

Over the next several years, the bill will expand coverage to more than 125,000 Rhode Islanders currently uninsured. And the bill will put the reins on out-of-control premium increases. For example, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the bill will reduce comparable premiums in the individual market by 14 to 20 percent.

Finally, the bill launches a battery of bold and innovative steps to tame out-of-control medical costs by, for example, creating quality-control mechanisms to cut re-admissions to hospitals and hospital-acquired infections, creating incentives for doctors to group together in cost-saving organizations, and setting up an independent, nonpartisan commission of experts to use Medicare’s spending leverage to reward better patient care.

These reforms will benefit the hundreds of Rhode Islanders who have shared so many heartbreaking health-care stories with me.

I know that Michael, a Barrington resident, will rest easier knowing that, with this legislation, his son will not face pre-existing-condition exclusions or lifetime limits on his health-insurance coverage. This past year, Michael’s 16-year-old son suffered a series of life-threatening illnesses and is currently finishing treatment for aplastic anemia.

Michael worries about the lifetime cap on their insurance policy because if his son relapses he may need another bone-marrow transplant. Looking ahead, he is also worried that his son will be denied a new insurance policy, given his serious pre-existing conditions. His son will now be protected.

A few months before his passing, Senator Kennedy wrote to President Obama:

“When I thought of all the years, all the battles, and all the memories of my long public life, I felt confident in these closing days that while I will not be there when it happens, you will be the President who at long last signs into law the health care reform that is the great unfinished business of our society. For me, this cause stretched across decades; it has been disappointed, but never finally defeated. It was the cause of my life.”

We can thank leaders like Ted Kennedy and President Obama for never giving up, and for ensuring that disappointment did not end in defeat. And I would personally like to thank all those Rhode Islanders who shared their stories with me in the past year – Rhode Islanders struggling with rising insurance premiums, difficult personal circumstances, and unfair practices. The passage of this historic legislation was a victory for you.

Sheldon Whitehouse is the junior U.S. senator from Rhode Island.

By: Sheldon Whitehouse