Wanted: User manual for health care overhaul

By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, March 23 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and the Democrats have overcome their doubts and divisions to pass landmark health care legislation affecting every family and one-sixth of the economy. The president will sign the main bill at a White House ceremony scheduled for Tuesday, and a companion package of fixes is expected to be on its way to his desk soon.

That leaves Americans with a burning question: How's this all going to work?

"A key element to these reforms is that options that weren't available to people will become available now," said DeAnn Friedholm of Consumers Union. The publishers of Consumer Reports supported Obama's effort.

Some questions and answers on the health care bill:

Question: When are the uninsured going to get coverage?

Answer: Most will have to wait until 2014.

That's when the government begins providing tax credits to help people who can't otherwise afford to pay health insurance premiums. The aid will be available on a sliding scale to households making up to four times the federal poverty level, or about $88,000 for a family of four.

A four-person family making around $40,000 will pay only about 5 percent of its income. But the same size family making $80,000 will pay nearly 10 percent of its income. Medicaid will be expanded to cover people up to 133 percent of the poverty level, or about $29,300 for a family of four.

Starting that same year, health insurance companies would have to take all applicants. They could not deny coverage to people in poor health, or charge them higher premiums.

More than 30 million people will gain coverage, and by 2016 about 95 percent of eligible working-age adults and their families would have health insurance. Most would buy their coverage through health insurance exchanges, new state-based purchasing pools. Illegal immigrants wouldn't be able to participate.

Question: So after all the ruckus, nothing happens for another four years?

Answer: Not at all. There will be plenty of changes before the big push to expand coverage.

For example, the bill starts to close the gap in the Medicare prescription drug benefit right away. Seniors who fall into the dreaded "doughnut hole" gap in coverage will get a $250 rebate this year.

Other changes starting this year include prohibiting health insurance companies from canceling coverage if you get sick, and banning lifetime dollar limits on coverage. Insurers also would be prohibited from denying coverage to children because of a pre-existing medical condition.

In a big change for middle-class families with kids in college, parents will get to keep adult children on their health plan until they turn 26.

Question: That might help kids moving from college to work. What are the requirements?

Answer: The main requirement for now is that adult children not be eligible for workplace insurance of their own.

The Senate bill originally also required them to be unmarried, but the House has voted to lift that restriction, and the Senate is expected to follow. (Grandkids, however, would not be eligible.)

To what degree adult children would have to be financially dependent on their parents remains to be clarified in regulations. However, congressional staffers involved in writing the legislation said lawmakers did not intend to require that parents have to support their kids to keep them on their coverage.

Question: Twenty-year-olds are usually pretty healthy. What if you're uninsured right now and you also happen to be sick?

Answer: There's a transition program in the legislation meant to help the most vulnerable.

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