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What I want in health care reform

Charlotte Observer Op-Ed

Sunday, August 2, 2009

By Sen. Kay Hagan

When I travel through North Carolina, I hear from people throughout the state who are struggling in this economy. Many of the thousands of North Carolinians who lost their jobs in this recession have also lost their health care and are standing on a financial precipice where just one medical emergency will lead to bankruptcy.

Carolyn from Asheville is in remission from breast cancer. Her husband lost his job while she was battling the disease. They were able to remain on his former employer's insurance for 18 months, but when that expired, the only insurance they could find on the individual market cost more than $2,000 a month because of Carolyn's pre-existing condition.

North Carolinians, like Carolyn, are rightly demanding that Congress do something about our nation's health care system. Premiums for employer-provided coverage have doubled in the past nine years, growing three times faster than wages. Health insurance costs for self-employed workers, many of whom own small businesses, have risen 74 percent since 2001. On our current trajectory, health care premiums for the average family will rise to nearly $25,000 by the year 2016.

Currently, 45.7 million people in our country have no health insurance. The majority are working Americans. About 44 percent are from the South, and one in five North Carolinians has no health insurance. An additional 14,000 people lose their coverage every day. Simply put, we can no longer afford inaction.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, on which I sit, crafted a bill that strengthens our employer-based system. It stabilizes health care costs, focuses on quality of care and ensures a pre-existing condition does not prevent you from getting coverage. Under this bill, people who lose or change their jobs can keep their health care. And we make certain that people who like their health insurance and their doctors get to keep them. Democrats and Republicans had input in this bill and the committee adopted 197 amendments, 161 of which were Republican. The committee passed the bill July 15.

The legislation creates incentives and grants to entice more young people to enter the medical field, especially in primary care. It implements a national standard for health information technology to increase efficiency and cut down on fraud and abuse that costs our country a staggering $60 billion each year - at least 3 percent of total health care spending.

It also focuses on preventive services, which will keep our nation healthier and save taxpayers' money in the long run. In North Carolina, diabetes costs the state $5.3 billion every year. Programs that target obesity, which is a leading cause of diabetes and plagues three in five North Carolinians, will help improve the quality of life for thousands, save lives and reduce the cost of this disease to our state. To tackle this widespread disease, this month I introduced the Catalyst to Better Diabetes Care Act, which builds on the Senate committee's work in prevention and wellness.

Small business owners I talk to in North Carolina want to do right by their employees. But health care coverage is simply too expensive for them. This bill provides employers with fewer than 50 employees a credit to cover workers - $1,000 for an individual and $2,000 for a family plan. These credits will give small business owners the resources they need to help provide their employees with health care benefits.

I also worked with my colleagues on a compromise Community Health Insurance Option, a backstop option for people without access to affordable health care. It is not tied to Medicare payment rates, does not compel doctors to participate, and must meet federal and state solvency requirements, ensuring it competes on a level playing field with private health plans.

Now the Senate Finance Committee is working on a plan to pay for this necessary reform. The president reiterated in his visit last week to Raleigh that the bill must be deficit neutral. It is of vital importance to me that the final package does not add to the deficit.

Without action, health care costs will continue to soar, endangering our economic security. As our society grows older, more people with pre-existing conditions, such as Carolyn, will have nowhere to turn. I am working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to send a bill to the president that will bring stability and security to all Americans.

Hagan, a Democrat, is the junior U.S. senator from North Carolina.


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