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Why Congress' Health Care Bills Are Better Than You Think

The health care bills wending through Congress are getting a bad rap. And the major culprit is the Congressional Budget Office, and its chief, Doug Elmendorf.
 
 
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Many progressives are expressing deep disappointment with the health reform legislation now moving through Congress.

Some suggest that some legislators made deals with lobbyists and let them write the bills. Others complain that both the subsidies and the penalties are too low. Still others don't like the fact that states can "opt out" of the public insurance option and decide not to offer "Medicare E" -- Medicare for everybody.

Finally, many ask: "Why can't everyone sign on for the public plan in 2013? Why do we have to wait until 2013? Why can't they roll out universal coverage next year?"

Normally, I would be among the first to critique the bills. By temperament and training, I'm both a skeptic and a critic.

But in this case, I think it is important to recognize that we cannot expect this first piece of health reform legislation to be anything but wildly imperfect. In fact, I'm impressed by the progress Washington has made in just 10 months.

I've been watching the struggle for health care reform since the early 1970s, and compared to what has happened over the past 39 years, this is mind-boggling.

I also believe that those who favor overhauling our health care system should send a strong signal to legislators: We support you for having come this far. We realize that you have three yearsto strengthen, change and refine the plan before rolling it out in 2013.

What Has Been Accomplished So Far: Affordability

What is astounding is that this Congress has made as much progress as it has. We may have a new administration in the White House, but we do not have a brand-new group on the Hill.

The majority of our legislators are moderates; many are conservatives. Nevertheless, a sufficient number have found the will to stand up and back changes that would make health care affordable for millions of poor, working-class and middle-class Americans.

For example, under the House bill, a family of three making $32,000 a year would pay $1,360 in annual premiums for good, comprehensive coverage; under the Senate Finance Committee bill, that family would be asked to lay out $2,013. Today, without reform, if that family tried to buy insurance, it would find that the average plan costs $13,500. For this household, the current legislation makes all the difference.

Too often, the press suggests that such a family would be expected to pay $10,000 out of pocket to cover co-pays and deductibles. That just isn't true.

Even if the entire family were in an auto accident and racked up $200,000 in medical bills, at their income level, the House bill caps out-of-pocket expenses at $2,000 a year. Under the Senate Finance bill, the family would have to pay $4,000.

Moreover, under both bills, there are no co-pays for primary care. Even private insurers cannot put a $25 barrier between a family and preventive care.

Moving up the income ladder, a median-income household earning roughly $55,000 would pay premiums of $4,300 to $6,500 -- depending on whether the Senate Finance bill or the more generous House bill sets the terms.

Without legislation, they too would face a $13,500 price tag -- and that is if they could get a group rate. If they are buying insurance on their own, coverage could easily cost $16,000.

For self-employed workers, early retirees and those who work for (or own) a small business, the legislation offers major savings.They will be able to buy coverage on the Insurance Exchange, where they would suddenly become part of a group -- which makes their premiums much lower.