This year’s health reforms…

Health reform is alive and well, reports Jordan Rau at the Los Angeles Times.

More than a dozen health bills are advancing through the Legislature, many over the objection of insurers. Some of the proposals were transplanted from the plan that passed the Assembly last year, only to be rejected in the state Senate in January. Other measures are newly devised by the Democrats who control the Legislature.

The bills would require insurers to spend at least 85% of their earnings on patient care; block insurers from canceling policies of patients who need extensive care; and force them to cover more procedures, such as maternity services. Over the
objections of the major doctor and hospital lobbies, the Assembly approved a
measure backed by Schwarzenegger that would require medical providers to publicly reveal their costs and medical performance.

In a sign that a desire for piecemeal healthcare changes is strong this election year, some of the Democrats’ bills even have picked up votes among Republicans who did not support Schwarzenegger’s package.

Many of these are good bills, and would be considered big deals in any other year, if it wasn’t in comparison to the huge, comprehensive effort of AB x1 1. But it is important to recognize that they aren’t just small pieces: some of the legislative proposals form a foundation for future reforms:

Daniel Zingale, a senior advisor to Schwarzenegger, said the governor favors many of the ideas, if not the exact language, in the bills and plans to add others into the mix in a few weeks. “This year, the first floor of healthcare reform will be built, and it will make current coverage more secure, control costs, promote prevention and end the worst anti-consumer practices by HMOs,” Zingale said.

Many of the bills would affect the insurance market for individuals who buy coverage themselves rather than through employers — now more than 2 million Californians. It is a more lucrative niche for insurers than selling policies through employers because insurers have more leeway to set the terms of individual policies and face fewer regulations about what medical procedures must be covered and which customers must be accepted.

The Senate passed a proposal by the incoming president pro tem, Darrell Steinberg(D-Sacramento), that would make it easier for individual customers to compare competing plans. The bill also would limit maximum out-of-pocket costs for those individuals and force insurers to offer a whole range of policies if they want to do business in the state.

That bill, SB1522(Steinberg), sponsored by Health Access California, is an example of a bill that if implemented, creates a much sounder floor from which to build reform.

Most of note, the article indicates that this agenda to placing greater oversight over the insurance industry is getting bi-partisan support.

Opposition from insurers, however, is not dissuading Republicans — a traditional ally of the industry — from supporting some new restrictions. On Thursday, 12 of 32 Assembly Republicans joined Democrats to require insurers to obtain approval from state regulators before canceling coverage for people who have become ill and submitted medical bills. That bill, by Assemblyman Hector De La Torre (D-South Gate) is one of three measures the Assembly has passed to address that practice, which has prompted state investigations of — and in some cases led to fines for — many of the state’s biggest insurers.

Some GOP lawmakers also are agreeing to expand the type of procedures insurers must cover. Twelve of 15 Republicans joined their Democratic colleagues in the Senate and voted to require insurers to pay for surgery to fix cleft palates, a common birth defect that occurs in one of every 790 babies. A panel of experts said this would add only $146,000 in annual costs to California’s $79-billion insurance industry, but insurers are opposing it because they don’t want lawmakers limiting the policies they offer.

On the Senate floor in mid-May, five of 15 Republicans ignored industry opposition by voting to compel insurers to reveal how often they rule that procedures are not medically necessary.The bill, by Kuehl, also would force insurers to disclose the medical qualifications of the employees who make those decisions.

That same day, four Republican senators voted to pass another Kuehl bill that would require insurers to offer customers the option of adding, for an additional charge, coverage to include the purchase of wheelchairs, oxygen tanks and other durable medical equipment.

Sen. Sam Aanestad (R-Grass Valley), who voted for the measure, said insurance policies have become too complicated to understand.”I’ve got grown kids who have advanced college degrees, and they’re not sure if something’s covered or not,” he said.

Amen to Dr. Aanestad’s comment. If there’s a theme to the reforms this year, it’s that people are concerned that there coverage will not be there for them when they need it. In some cases, it’s because the insurance company rescinds coverage; but in many others, it’s because you don’t realize what is covered, and not covered, until it is too late.

We can begin to fix that with these bills, as well as with fighting the budget cuts that undermine that security for the millions with public coverage programs.

Health Access California promotes quality, affordable health care for all Californians.

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