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Obamacare Part II: Locals grapple with the new healthcare program

Technical problems aside, there’s disagreement about whether the program is best way to get health care to the masses and what it means for businesses

 

Riverside County Supervisor John Tavaglione did an interesting thing during this year’s Claremont McKenna-UCLA Inland Empire Forecast Conference, which was held last month at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario.

 

He said some positive things about Obamacare.

 

“I’m a former business owner myself, so I know how difficult this can be for a lot of you,” Tavaglione told the audience of 300 or so, many of whom were business owners who are less than thrilled with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. “I understand the apprehension, and the fact that some people don’t like the government getting this involved in the business sector, but just look at the trouble our healthcare system is in.”

 

Tavaglione, who was part of a panel discussion on the impact Obamacare is likely to have on businesses in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, then outlined some of those those troubles: too many people with little or no insurance, skyrocketing costs, and emergency rooms overwhelmed by people who have no other place to go for treatment when they get sick.

 

“There are 19 publicly owned hospitals in California right now, and they are all overwhelmed,” Tavaglione said. “Their emergency rooms are packed, and it’s not because they’re practicing preventive medicine.”

 

The second district supervisor then proceeded to sound like someone in the Obama Administration, if not the president himself: yes, the Affordable Care Act isn’t a perfect solution to the nation’s healthcare problems, but it could reduce the number of uninsured people in the country by as many as 60 million, and cut healthcare premiums, given enough time.

 

Overworked emergency rooms will get some relief under the Affordable Care Act because the legislation requires people to get healthcare insurance and see their primary physician first for non-emergencies, Tavaglione said.

 

That’s potentially good news for the Inland Empire, whose hospital emergency rooms have been overwhelmed with patients since the recession began, according to California Healthline, an online publication that covers the state’s healthcare industry.

 

The lower premiums brought on by the Affordable Care Act could help change that, Tavaglione said.

 

“I know it’s not a perfect solution, but I do think it will do some good,” Tavaglione said. “It’s a move in the right direction. Our job now is to try and make it work.”

 

Signed into law by President Obama in 2010, the Affordable Care Act has been called the most sweeping government overhaul of the country’s healthcare systems since the passage of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965.

 

The backbone of the measure is the individual mandate, which requires anyone not covered by Medicare, Medicaid, an employer-sponsored plan or another public insurance plan to secure an approved private insurance policy or pay a penalty.

 

Obamacare also makes it illegal for any insurance company to refuse anyone coverage because of a pre-existing condition, and it expands Medicaid coverage.

 

The program, which applies to businesses that employ 50 or more people that don’t offer offer health insurance, will be paid for with a variety of taxes and offsets and is being phased in during the next seven years.

 

“It is a good deal,” President Obama said during a news conference last month. “People don’t just want it, they’re showing up to buy it.”

 

Getting Obamacare off the ground has proven to be even more difficult than most people thought it would be prior to its Oct. 1 rollout. Republicans in Congress shut down the government for 16 days, partly in a bid to defund the program, an effort that proved to be unsuccessful.

 

The Obamacare website, healthcare.gov, has been plagued by numerous technical problems, including overloads that make it difficult for people to learn their options and sign up for coverage. Some applicants have had difficulty setting up an individual account, without which the site can’t be navigated.

 

While the websites for the state-run exchanges, including Covered California, have performed better than the federal website, the technical snafus on healthcare.gov have given the administration’s critics more ammunition with which to attack the program.

 

In a statement issued when the rollout began to stumble, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said the problems with the Affordable Care Act were “larger than a website failure” and that they would not be repaired quickly.

“The website does serve as stark evidence that the federal government is ill-equipped to centrally manage our nation’s healthcare,” Cantor said.

Even if healthcare.gov had worked flawlessly from the moment it went online, Obamacare was going to have a difficult time succeeding, according to officials with a Riverside business that helps companies set up their insurance policies.

“The general reaction that I’m getting is frustration, and it’s not just because the website isn’t working,” said Randy Rider, vice president of employee benefits and retirement plans for Hub International Insurance Services. “A lot of people don’t understand it, and so they get frustrated and move on. They were also told they could keep their coverage if they liked it, and that’s turning out to not be true all of the time.”

The Affordable Care Act’s biggest problem isn’t the faulty website, which Rider said will be fixed eventually: it’s the ban on insurance carriers refusing coverage to anyone who has a pre-existing condition.

“Some of the carriers are going to raise their premiums 60 or 70 percent because of that,” Rider said. “No matter what a person’s condition is they can’t turn them down, which is a little scary. The only way they can stay profitable is to raise their premiums.”

Tim Kolacz, an account executive with Hub International, said he started off believing that Obamacare would insure more people.

He assumed there would be growing pains, but that ultimately the program would lower insurance costs by creating more competition, especially in its first few years when a lot of people were likely to enroll.

One month after the rollout, Kolacz isn’t so sure.

“The only way this works is if a lot of young people sign up for it, and I don’t see that happening,” Kolacz said. “The penalty for not signing up is only $98. I think a lot of people will pay the penalty, and some businesses will start letting people go, or cutting them back to part-time, so they won’t have to be part of the program.”

One thing both sides can agreed on is that the current healthcare system can’t continue, said Deborah A. Freund, president of Claremont Graduate University and a panelist at the CMC-UCLA forecast.

“The system we have now is inherently inflationary,” Freund said. “We have a sick-care system, not a healthcare system.”

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