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Treating each other with greater humanity, starting now


by Harold Pollack

Today marks the 6-month anniversary of the Affordable Care Act. It is imperfect. Important provisions -- affordability credits, health insurance exchanges -- don't kick in until 2014. Other provisions, such as the high-risk insurance pools, need greater funding.

Despite these limitations, I am struck by the way health reform really is improving people's lives in ways that are only beginning to really attract public notice. I am also struck by the way many Americans overlook beneficial changes this law has brought. Given our sour public mood driven by the bad economy, it’s easy to ignore how health reform is already helping some of our friends and neighbors who need help.

Just today, I heard about the challenge facing a campus colleague who recently delivered a premature baby. As individuals, members of our university community wish this baby and her family well. Many well-wishers have sent cards and flowers.

Yet the challenging question remains: What are we actually doing to make sure that this family will get the help they need: not just today or this week or this month, but ten years from now if this child requires continuing extensive help? What are we doing to ensure that this family won’t face huge medical bills, or that they will be able to buy coverage if this baby has continuing health problems?

As luck would have it, our university did do something just last week to help families such as this one. The university did so to comply with health reform.

I received the below letter from Mr. Michael Knitter, director of our benefits office.

The letter begins:

Now that federal health reform known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) is law, we wanted to explain some of the ways this new legislation affects your University of Chicago Medical Plan benefits.

Starting in 2011, the letter details three specific expansions in covered care:

  • Your eligible children may continue to be covered under your group health plan until age 26-whether or not they are a student and regardless of their medical coverage—but only if they are not eligible for other group coverage.
  • Your coverage will no longer have a lifetime maximum limit in your health plan.
  • Your coverage will no longer have pre-existing coverage limitations for children under 19.

Those last two provisions are obviously especially important for families caring for a premature infant or a child with special health care needs.

There is no free lunch in life. I can’t deduct my nonprescription medications like Advil as readily within my Flexible Savings Account. Now that our insurance does a better job of actually covering people with costly conditions, the long-term impact on our premiums remains to be seen. I believe these changes are worth it.

Sometimes, we express our humanity in dry bureaucratic prose. I know no other way to specify how human beings in complex situations will get the care and services they need. This university letter will bore many of the people who receive it, many of whom will toss it, unread, into the recycling bin. This letter will be very welcome to many people with costly illnesses or who care for injured, disabled, or chronically-ill family members.

Six months ago today, I was sandwiched way in the back of the East Room watching President Obama sign the Affordable Care Act. Caring for a sick infant or a disabled child can be a long and difficult, sometimes a lonely road. The bill President Obama signed made that road a little less difficult, a little less precarious, and a little less lonely. That's something to be proud of.

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