By Tara Kaprowy
Kentucky Health News
The biggest problem with the federal health-care reform law is not the law itself, but the fact that "We've never done as good a job as we could have" in explaining what it is about, Democratic U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville told the editorial board of The Courier-Journal Friday.
In his lengthy interview, Yarmuth said the problem started at the law's inception when President Obama outlined his parameters but let Congress decide what the bill should be. "The challenge was explaining what the bill even was because we didn't know what it was going to be," he said.
The issue was compounded by the fact that, unlike energy legislation where its "impact is relatively uniform," with health care "everyone wants to know how it will affect you and your family ... and it's all different," Yarmuth said. "It's hard to market something individually to 300 million people."
Also contributing to the problem is the complexity of the subject itself, which Yarmuth likened to "the biggest Rubik's cube that ever existed," since "Every time you move one piece, 100 pieces move."
That has resulted in deeply-seated misconceptions about the law that are difficult to undo. The biggest, he said, is "that it is some form of government takeover." Those with that view note that the law's individual mandate in the law will force people to buy insurance or pay a fine, and the law will impose new rules on health-insurance companies and put many other controls on the system.
But Yarmuth argues the law uses "free enterprise and competition" to "provide more affordable care for individuals." Indeed, state insurance exchanges will feature different benefits packages from private companies from which people who qualify for the exchange can choose. People who qualify for the exchange — those who earn up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level — will be given subsidies in the form of tax breaks to help pay for their premiums. "The reason why the Republicans don't have an alternative is Obamacare was their alternative," Yarmuth said. "This was their plan: creating competition among insurers and letting them compete for individual business."
Another misconception is that people who don't have health insurance are "deadbeats," Yarmuth said. But he said 37 percent of Americans who are uninsured make over $50,000 a year and almost 20 percent make over $75,000 a year (those percentages are confirmed here). "No, these are solid citizens," he said. He pointed out that all families pay the cost of those who are uninsured, adding that an estimated $1,000 of every health insurance policy goes toward paying for uncompensated care.
Yarmuth said in Kentucky nearly $600 million is spent on uncompensated care each year. (A Kentucky Hospital Association report estimated it is far higher: $1.67 billion in 2010.) Regardless of the figure, Yarmuth said losses could be offset by expanding Medicaid, a claim supported by a report by the Urban Institute. Expansion would cover almost 300,000 Kentuckians and would cost the state $515 million through 2019, he said. "It will bring in $12 billion of federal money," he said. "Is that a good trade-off?"
Asked how provisions in the law would be paid for, Yarmuth acknowledged "If you're adding 30 million more people, it's going to add cost to the system." Ultimately, costs will continue to go up but "less than they otherwise would," he said. He referred to pre-law estimates by the Congressional Budget Office that the cost of employer-based insurance would double to $25,000 a year for a family of four, but the law seems to have slowed that trend. Yarmuth referred to an article published in the journal Health Affairs that indicated that between 2010 and 2011, overall national health-care expenditures increased by 3.9 percent. "That's the lowest rate of growth in the last 50 years," he said. "It is having an effect." The CBO estimated the law will reduce the deficit over the next 10 years by $130 billion, with an estimated $1.2 trillion saved in the second 10, Yarmuth noted. "We all knew we were on an unsustainable path."
But most still don't know that, and on Saturday, a day after the Yarmuth interview, the C-J editorial board criticized Democrats for not doing a better job getting their message out about the new law: "The problem is partially that the law is complex and 2,000 pages long. It's partially that the Republicans have successfully put the Democrats on the defensive, forcing them to defend the law to people who have already had the GOP message driving into their heads. But it's also that the Democrats don't trust that the American people will be willing or able to understand them when they defend the health-care law."