Health Care Law Turns Two, Insurance Prices Still Rising

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This month (March, 2012) marks two years since President Obama signed the big federal health care overhaul, the Affordable Care Act, into law.

But two new reports show the cost of health insurance continues to rise in Colorado, and that the main reason Coloradans are doing without health coverage is its high cost.

CPR Health Reporter Eric Whitney has this look at the federal health care law, and when it might start to impact health insurance prices in Colorado.

CPR Health Reporter Eric Whitney: The average cost of a family health insurance policy offered through a job in Colorado nearly doubled between 2000 and 2010, to $13,400 a year. That means people like Aurora resident Maya Wheeler have to make tough choices.

Maya Wheeler: Because for myself and three kids it’d be like $600 a month just for insurance. And I couldn’t do it, so I had to sacrifice, like, saying I’m the person that’s more likely to get sick than my kids, so I had to not cover them, like, that was the tradeoff I had to make.

Reporter: Wheeler shared her story on a website set up by the Colorado Coalition for the Medically Underserved.

People like her are supposed to get relief from the Affordable Care Act. Lorez Meinhold, one of Governor John Hickenlooper’s top health advisors, says that the law has introduced important consumer protections in its first two years, but that cost relief for most consumers is still in the future.

Governor Hickenlooper’s Policy Director Lorez Meinhold: Health care reform wasn’t one big sweeping change that happened when the bill passed. What it was is a series of changes. A series of changes that started in 2010, but went through 2014.

Reporter: 2014 is when the law is supposed to start offering subsidies to help people pay for health insurance. The subsidies are supposed to go to people making about $44,000 a year or less. People who make more than that can get subsidies if they have dependents.

So if the law rolls out according to plan, people like Maya Wheeler should have an easier time affording health premiums. But critics like Republican State Representative Bob Gardner say Wheeler’s gain will come at the expense of taxpayers who have to provide the subsidies.

CO Rep. Bob Gardner: You don’t get free lunches in this system.

Reporter: Gardner says he thinks the Affordable Care Act is actually going to make health policy premiums go up, not down.

Gardner: It will carry additional mandates, and the idea that we have additional mandates and somehow that won’t cost more money, that’s somebody’s dream world.

Reporter: The question of mandates is very much in play at the moment.

Right now, states and the federal government are working on what the minimum level of insurance will be when 2014 arrives and nearly every American will be required to buy coverage.

Mandating autism coverage, for example, would probably make insurance more expensive than leaving it out.

But whatever the details of the mandatory minimum coverage, even backers of the Affordable Care Act like Lorez Meinhold say it’s not likely to drive down the price of health insurance premiums anytime soon.

Meinhold: My expectation might not be a drop right away, but if we can at least flatten and make the insurance rates more predictable, then we’re moving on the right path.

Reporter: The key to driving the cost of health insurance down, Meinhold says, is driving down the cost of what it pays for, medical care itself. She and other backers of the Affordable Care Act say the law does a lot to re-design how health care is delivered and paid for. Right now, Meinhold says, the healthcare system is rife with waste. Doctors and hospitals get paid for doing lots of things that might not be necessary, instead of being rewarded for keeping people healthy.

Meinhold: So if we can figure out how to pay instead for value, and make sure that people get the right care at the right time, that will improve their health and improve the health of our state, then we’re on the right track.

Reporter: Two years after President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act, pilot projects aiming to streamline health care and how it’s paid for are underway in Colorado and across the country. Their future, in large part, depends on whether the U.S Supreme Court allows the health law to go forward. It starts taking up arguments for and against that in three weeks.

This story was produced in collaboration with NPR and Kaiser Health News. Kaiser Health News is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

[Photo: CPR News]