Hands off my health care!
Remember those words from the health care reform debate of two years ago? I'm confident we'll be seeing them on protest signs in Washington again this week as the Supreme Court hears arguments on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. And we'll see them again when the protest campaigns shift into high gear this summer.
One of the rules of effective communications is to keep it simple. In attacking something you don't like, use as few words as possible, and make sure those words pack an emotional wallop. That's why lies about "death panels" and a "government takeover" of health care have been so potent. Unfortunately for those advocating reform, it's far more challenging to explain and defend a law as complicated as the Affordable Care Act.
Maybe, then, supporters of the law should co-opt the "hands off" slogan and make it their own. That would require adding just a few more words here and there to make clear what would be lost if the law is repealed, gutted or declared unconstitutional.
Here are some suggestions:
"Hands off my health care! Granny doesn't need her meds all year anyway!"
The Affordable Care Act is closing the despised and even deadly "doughnut hole" in the Medicare prescription drug program, which was designed in 2003 largely by lobbyists for insurance and pharmaceutical companies who were more interested in protecting their companies' profits than helping seniors stay alive. The way the law was cobbled together, Medicare beneficiaries get prescription drug coverage only up to a certain amount. When they reach that limit, they fall into the "doughnut hole" and have to pay about $4,000 out of their own pockets for their prescriptions before coverage resumes. As a consequence, many people stop taking their medications because they don't have the money to pay for them. And many of them die. The Affordable Care Act has already shrunk that gap and will close it completely in 2020.
"Hands off my health care! Who cares if insurers refuse to cover sick kids?"
Before the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies routinely refused to insure children who were born with disabilities or who developed life-threatening illnesses like diabetes or cancer. It was perfectly legal for them to refuse to sell coverage to anyone -- even children -- who had what insurers call a "pre-existing condition." The reform law already requires insurers to cover all kids, regardless of health status. It will apply to the rest of us in 2014.
"Hands off my health care! My 24-year-old daughter can just stay uninsured!"
Insurers have long had a policy of kicking young adults off their parents' policies when they turn 23. Many of these young folks don't have the money to buy coverage on their own -- and a lot of them can't buy it at all because of, you guessed it, pre-existing conditions. That's why young people comprise the biggest segment of the uninsured population. Because the Affordable Care Act allows parents to keep dependents on their policies until they turn 26, an estimated 2.5 million young people had become insured again as of the end of last year.
"Hands off my health care! If I lose my coverage because I lose my job, so be it!"
Millions of Americans fall into the ranks of the uninsured every year when they get laid off. That's one reason the number of people without coverage swelled to 50 million during the recession. Many of them can't afford to buy insurance on their own and many of them have -- you guessed right again -- pre-existing conditions and can't buy it at any price. Starting in 2014, not only will the Affordable Care Act prohibit insurers from refusing to sell coverage to people of any age because of their medical history, it will also provide subsidies to low-income individuals and families to help them buy insurance.
"Hands off my health care! It's not my problem if your insurance company dumps you when you get sick!"
To avoid paying claims, insurers for years have cancelled the coverage of policyholders when they got sick. A former nurse in Texas testified before Congress in 2009 about getting a cancellation notice from her insurer the day before she was to have a mastectomy because she had failed to note on her application for coverage that she had been treated for acne. The Affordable Care Act makes it illegal for insurers to cancel policies for any reason other than fraud or failure to pay premiums.
"Hands off my health care!" Maybe we ought to think that through a little bit more before we take to the streets with those words on our placards. Insurers who profited from the way things used to be will laugh all the way to the bank if you start waving those signs, but you and people you love might live to regret it. On the plus side, at least for the special interests, you probably won't live as long.
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