Great Falls Tribune: Baucus, Tester hail health law as good for many

WASHINGTON — Senior citizens. Native Americans. The uninsured.

Ask Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, both Democrats, why they think the landmark health care package Congress recently approved is good medicine for Montana, and they list those groups as three reasons. The Treasure State has a greater share of those populations compared with the national average, and there’s something in the new law aimed at helping each of them.

Critics of the bill President Barack Obama signed into law Tuesday call it an unprecedented government takeover of health care that will lead to fewer jobs, higher taxes and lower-quality treatment while causing the national debt to skyrocket. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., calls the plan a “radical change” that will lead to a bevy of unintended consequences.

State and national groups representing large and small businesses slammed the legislation as a “jobs killer” because of its mandates. And there’s much unease, especially in Western states such as Montana, about the federal government’s expanded role in health care. Even labor organizations such as the MEA-MFT — the state’s largest union, with 18,000 members who work primarily in education — aren’t thrilled because they say the bill’s provisions take too long to kick in, adding that the measure taxes some of the health benefits unions have spent years negotiating.

But Tester and Baucus, one of the bill’s chief architects, have no doubts about the legislation.

“This law is a significant step forward in my book,” Tester said last week. “Some changes folks will notice right away, others in the months and years to come.”

The landmark law will extend coverage to 32 million uninsured Americans by 2019 by expanding Medicaid for the poor, providing subsidies for private insurance and creating tax credits for small businesses to insure their employees. Most people will have to buy insurance and larger employers must offer it or face a penalty. Additionally, under the law insurers no longer can reject customers with preexisting health conditions or impose lifetime limits on benefits.

The cost of the legislation is estimated at $938 billion over 10 years, but it will be offset largely by penalties on individuals and employers who don’t buy insurance, a tax on high-cost health plans, a higher Medicare tax on the wealthy, and new fees and taxes on insurance companies and makers of drugs and medical devices. The independent Congressional Budget Office estimates the changes will cut the federal deficit by $143 billion over the next decade.

Here’s how supporters of the law say it helps Montanans:

  • Senior citizens: The government will cut subsidies to private insurers offering Medicare Advantage plans for senior citizens, but it also will increase Medicare benefits by closing the “doughnut hole” gap in prescription drug coverage created when the program was enacted in 2003. Senior citizens will initially receive rebates of up to $250 until 2020, when the gap is eliminated.>

    Full prescription coverage will “ensure that no seniors in Medicare ever have to choose between their medication and their next meal,” said Bob Bartholomew, AARP Montana state director.

  • Native Americans: Tucked into the 2,700-page mammoth law is the permanent reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which provides access to federal aid for Indian health care facilities, modernizes treatment options and expands services to include more cancer screening and suicide prevention opportunities.

    “It opens the door for a lot of things, said Democratic State Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy, a member of the Chippewa Cree Tribe of the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation. “We’re on the right track.”

  • The uninsured: Nearly 152,000 Montanans — about 16 percent of the state’s population — lack health insurance, and almost all of them will gain greater access and financial help to obtain insurance under the new law. In advocating the reforms, Tester highlighted the 70 percent insurance premium increases confronting school district employees in Hinsdale, Saco and Nashua.

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