Tester: Families, vets, communities will benefit

The Great Falls Tribune

by Erin Madison

The health reform bill signed by the president one week ago is a major step forward, but it is not radical change, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., told an audience Thursday at the Great Falls Civic Center.

The new law will benefit Montana families, veterans and children, as well as community health care centers, Tester said.

The bill includes $11 billion over five years for community health centers nationwide.

“We will be applying for some of this funding in hopes of expanding our center in Great Falls,” said Alicia Thompson, health officer for the City-County Health Department, which hosted Thursday’s forum.

The money could be used for physical expansions as well as the addition of services and staff.

“We’ve known for years in this community that we need to expand,” Thompson said.

If someone called today to make an appointment at the health department, it would be June before the patient could get in, she said.

The additional funding could help the health department expand its medical, dental and mental health services, Thompson said.

The bill also prevents insurance companies from denying coverage based on preexisting conditions, outlaws insurance companies placing lifetime caps on coverage and allows young adults to stay on their parents’ insurance plans until age 26. Those are the aspects of the bill that will likely have the most impact on Montanans, Tester said.

Like with any bill, the health care bill includes provisions Tester doesn’t like, he said. One example of that is that starting in 2018, health insurance plans that cost more than $10,200 for a single person or $27,500 for a family of four will be taxed.

Earlier Thursday, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., spoke during a teleconference with approximately 6,500 callers. During the call, organized by AARP, he assured listeners that the reform bill will not decrease Medicare coverage.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.

Instead, the bill enhances Medicare coverage, Baucus said, including a provision that will fully cover prescription drugs by 2020. Beginning this year, seniors who reach the “donut hole,” or gap in benefits, in prescription drug coverage will receive a $250 check. In Montana, about 25,000 seniors will receive that benefit, Baucus said.

Medicare recipients also will see decreased costs for preventative treatments such as mammograms and colonoscopies.

“Medicare does a halfway decent job of helping people who get sick,” Baucus said, before adding that one of the goals of the reform legislation was to do a better job of preventing people from getting sick.

Starting in 2014, insurance coverage will be available on insurance exchanges, Baucus said. Those online exchanges will be similar to sites such as Orbitz, where people can shop for the lowest rates.

Members of Congress will be included in that exchange, Tester said.

The bill is expected to cut the federal deficit by as much as $1.2 trillion over the next two decades, he said.

However, Tester and Baucus said the bill isn’t perfect.

“This won’t be the last time we talk about health care in Congress,” Tester said, adding that because the bill is implemented over time, it gives Congress time to tweak it as needed.

“We’ll have to keep working on this,” Baucus added.

Tester said he doesn’t expect the issue to come up in Congress again until next year.