Friday, December 29, 2006

A Start: Health Care Costs

Medical emergencies and the attendant costs have been one of the leading reasons for people being forced into bankruptcy. And one of the reasons for that is that the uninsured and underinsured have had to pay disproportionately more for the care than those fortunate enough to have adequate health insurance. Health care providers have had to deal with insurance companies limiting what they can charge, so they make up the difference on the backs of those without insurance. That's what "for profit" organizations do.

This year, the California legislature passed a bill (which was signed by the governor)which attempts to correct that inequity, and the bill takes effect January 1. From today's Sacramento Bee:

A California law that takes effect Monday would prohibit hospitals from overbilling low- to middle-income patients who are uninsured or have limited insurance.

Under Assembly Bill 774, hospital charges for those patients can be no more than the highest rates charged by Medicare, workers compensation or other government programs in which the hospital participates.

The legislation covers people with a household income no more than 350 percent of the poverty level, or $58,100 annually for a family of three, and prohibits harsh collection practices such as garnishing wages and putting liens on property.

Patients will have 150 days to provide paperwork showing they are eligible. Uninsured patients who fail to meet that requirement can be turned over to collections.

...Proponents say people with no or limited health insurance can seek care without fear of financial ruin. Medical bills are a leading cause of bankruptcy.

"This is the biggest direct help that uninsured people have gotten in the last five or 10 years," said Anthony Wright, director of Health Access, which advocates for health consumers.

"In principle, this ensures that most uninsured people do not get charged more than everybody else for exactly the same purpose."
[Emphasis added]

Consumer advocates have been fighting for such a bill for several years, only to be beaten back by the hospital lobby. Last year the lobby backed down a little because various class action lawsuits threatened to accomplish by judicial fiat what the proposed legislation wanted to do. This is not to say that the for profit agencies caved, far from it, but at least even this compromise bill will provide some relief.

Although further reform is needed when it comes to health care and health insurance costs, now that he has been safely re-elected, Governor Schwartzenegger might not be so compliant. At least we have a start, however.



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