By JESSICA HARPER
BALTIMORE (March 24, 2011) A panel of Maryland and federal leaders marked the one-year anniversary of the Affordable Health Care for America Act Thursday by extolling the law's consumer protections, especially those that concern women and children.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Gov. Martin O'Malley, Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., joined the panel at the Attorney General's Office in Baltimore.
Sebelius said the anniversary is important because health benefits associated with the new law are finally materializing.
"We've been working really hard on implementation," said Sebelius. "And we think it's really important for consumers to know what is coming their way as a result of the Affordable Care Act."
The law has come under fire rhetorically—disparaged as "Obamacare" that does little to lower costs and much to increase government regulation—and in court, with state challenges to its mandate that most individuals purchase insurance or face penalties.
The panelists countered the criticism with praise for protections built into the act, including giving women the right to see an obstetrician-gynecologist without a referral; guaranteeing choice of a primary care doctor for adults or pediatrician for children; and stopping unreasonable insurance premium increases and lifetime dollar caps on benefits.
Sebelius said consumer aids such as new rules for insurance companies, stronger Medicare benefits and improvements in outreach care help Americans most.
The secretary urged Marylanders to visit www.healthcare.gov and to take advantage of the state's new Consumer Assistance Program, both of which, she said, help everyday citizens navigate health care mazes. These improvements, she said, ensure that people who have insurance coverage receive the services they need.
"If they are denied a claim or the insurance company doesn't pay the bill, they have somebody who can fight on their behalf," she said.
Made possible by health care reform passed last March, Maryland's Consumer Assistance Program has received nearly $642,000 in funding from the Department of Health and Human Services.
Sebelius said the Consumer Assistance Program eases consumer discomfort.
"Health care can be cumbersome. It's complicated, and folks often don't know where to start," she said. "So, having a consumer assistance program in the Attorney General's office and having free service like calling a volunteer who is trained and can negotiate on behalf of a consumer (is helpful).
Sebelius said her past experience as an insurance commissioner governs her perspective on consumer protections.
"I ran an office like this for eight years, and I know, in health care, it's about life and death decisions," she said. "It's about can you get a treatment authorized? Are you going to get the medicines you need? Even people with insurance coverage often are struggling to fight the system to make sure their doctors' recommendations are taken."
O'Malley echoed Sebelius, adding that Maryland is "breaking out of a harmful spiral," by implementing consumer protections.
"There are businesses throughout our country that instead of investing in job creation and winning in this new economy, are instead sending bigger and bigger checks every year to the insurance companies."
O'Malley said Maryland wants to break from that pack and emerge as a health care leader.
"If we do it right, we will make our state more competitive and more attractive to businesses," he said. "In addition to the benefits that come from extending health care coverage and improving the quality of care and the number of people covered, it also is going to be a help to our economy."