Opinion

Taking the Guess Work Out of Health Insurance

By Gov. Chris Gregoire March 23, 2012

Editor's note: Today at noon, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed legislation (which passed the state legislature earlier this month) establishing Washington State's health care "exchange" under President Obama's health care reform law, a crucial step toward implementing health care reform. The legislation sets rules for how the exchange will function when it takes effect in 2014. Next week, the US Supreme Court is set to hear challenges to the health care law; state attorney general Rob McKenna, who's running for governor, joined the 26-state lawsuit to stop health care reform.

This is a landmark day in the Evergreen State. We took a giant step to deliver high-quality, affordable health care to every Washingtonian by 2014. Access to health care and health insurance should not be an intimidating maze, especially not in this era when technology and information are at our fingertips. And having health insurance or getting care should never drive families to bankruptcy or difficult decisions such as whether to pay the rent or prescription drugs.

Today, I signed into law a vital part of the federal Affordable Care Act: The continued development of the Washington State Health Benefit Exchange.

Two years ago today, the Affordable Care Act became law. Across the country, the law has already helped millions and given Americans the peace of mind they deserve. The Affordable Care Act is delivering on what it promised: Requiring fair treatment by insurance companies and treating consumers with respect.

Here in Washington, the Act means:

• More than 2.4 million Washingtonians no longer have a lifetime limit on their health insurance plan, giving them hope and help.

• More than 1.2 million Washingtonians have either received or added coverage for important preventive services.

• More than 62,000 seniors received a significant rebate to help cover prescription drug costs when they hit the donut hole in 2010. In 2011, more than 60,000 received a 50 percent discount on prescription drugs, saving an average of $598 per person. By 2020 the Affordable Care Act will close the donut hole.

• More than 52,000 young adults in Washington under age 26 have gained health insurance coverage through their parents’ plans.

• No longer will 1 million Washingtonians be uninsured and worry that getting sick or hurt could lead to financial ruin.

• No longer will small businesses — the backbone of our economy — have to pay more than larger businesses for employee health care.

• No longer will Washingtonians be afraid to change jobs, have a baby or make other life changes because they fear how they will cope if they lose coverage.

In Washington State, we are leading the nation in improving health care. The Washington State Health Benefit Exchange is one of many reasons.

First, it means that Washingtonians, especially individuals and small businesses, can use a single web site to find information about health insurers who are competing head-to-head to provide Washington State residents with health insurance packages they want. Getting this vital information shouldn’t be an all-weekend project.

Insurance offerings will be displayed in one place so they can be compared both in price and in features, such as co-pays, premiums and services offered, allowing individuals to choose a plan that works best for them and their families. In short, the Exchange website will be a one-stop shop.

Second, health insurance offerings will, at a minimum, contain standard benefits — doctors visits, hospitalization, maternity care, mental health care, and prescription drug coverage — all of which citizens expect and deserve.

The Exchange will allow visitors to determine if they qualify for help, and to what extent. Starting in 2014, the Act will provide health insurance subsidies for qualifying lower-income Washingtonians receiving Medicaid, all the way up to tax credits, depending on income.

As we move forward with the Affordable Care Act, let us see the big picture.

Our current health care system is groaning under its own weight. Our nation cannot compete if we don’t fix this broken, inefficient and inequitable system. All citizens deserve health care, not just those able to afford it.

Personal health care debt is the cause of more than 60 percent of personal bankruptcies. Businesses large and small are increasingly hard-pressed to provide insurance in a country where health care as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product is substantially higher than other countries — and rising still.

In state government, our health care expenditures for state employees and the swelling number of low-income citizens who’ve needed our help during a turbulent economy have doubled in the past decade to more than $5 billion, and would be even more but for our relentless efforts to control costs and get value for the dollars we’re spending.

Clearly we can’t afford the status quo. We must as a nation, and as compassionate people, make health care affordable and available to all!

I was pleased to sign the bill today that sets the stage to get us there in Washington State.
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