Coverage for most Americans, a scramble for states

By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, June 28 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Mercedes Sanchez reads a chart during her annual eye exam at the William F. Ryan Community Health Center in New York, Wednesday, June 27, 2012. Presidential candidates, governors of virtually every state, insurers with billions at stake, companies large and small and countless millions of Americans concerned about their own medical care and how they'll pay for it .

Seth Wenig, Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court settled the legal argument over health care Thursday. Now Americans will find out if President Barack Obama's overhaul can work as advertised to provide coverage to millions of uninsured people while also keeping costs in check.

If it works, the United States will move closer to other economically advanced countries that for years have guaranteed health insurance to their citizens. If the plan falters, expect endless political wrangling over the nation's problems with high medical costs, widespread waste and millions of uninsured people.

"My hope is we will have access to health care for our whole family that we can actually afford," Vicki McCuistion, one of 6.7 million uninsured Texans, said after learning of the Supreme Court decision. Speaking at the White House, Obama renewed that promise on Thursday, but the answer may not be fully known for years.

Republicans from presidential candidate Mitt Romney to lawmakers on Capitol Hill will keep pushing to repeal what they deride as "Obamacare," but the focus now quickly shifts from Washington to the states.

While health insurers, big hospitals and major employers have spent the last two years carrying out early provisions of the law and planning for many that are yet to come, states are all over the lot.

Although they are expected to play a crucial role in carrying out the law, only 14 states, plus Washington D.C., have actually adopted a plan for doing so.

Hoping the Affordable Care Act will be overturned, Republican governors and legislatures have resisted setting up new insurance markets that are a linchpin of the legislation, and that could turn into a problem for the whole country.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners expects only about half the states to be ready to set up new health insurance markets, slated to open for business in 2014. If states aren't ready, the law calls for Washington to step in and run things.

State plans for the markets — called exchanges — are due to the federal government by this fall. In states that fail to go ahead, Washington will run the exchange, which is supposed to provide one-stop shopping for health insurance, steering middle-class households to private plans and low-income people to Medicaid.

"States are going to have to make a pretty quick decision on exchanges," said North Dakota Insurance Commissioner Adam Hamm, a Republican. Most state legislatures have gone out of session, though governors may call lawmakers back.

The court ruling threw a new wrinkle into the decision that may give some states an incentive to hold back on expanding Medicaid coverage.

Since more than 8 in 10 Americans have health insurance, the vast majority of people are already in compliance with the controversial coverage requirement now validated by the court, which found that new penalties for those who ignore the insurance mandate are authorized under the taxing powers of Congress.

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