Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services, listened carefully and spoke personally to a small group of women Wednesday at a private home on St. Johns Road in Roland Park. Slim and striking with silver hair, black pantsuit and an entourage of press, security staff and television cameras, Ms. Sebelius was there to advocate for the American Health Care Act, also known as health care reform, the Affordable Care Act and Obamacare.
The ACA officially went into effect on March 23, 2010 and parts will have to wait until 2014 to be enacted. The act has its detractors, but in this Roland Park living room the consensus was thumbs up. The women present were Marylanders whose lives have dramatically and positively been affected by the new health care measures. “As a consumer, I think women have the most to gain by the new health care laws,” said Sebelius.
She was speaking at the home of Lynda Burton, A Roland Park resident whose daughter Alice works in health care policy in Maryland. According to Burton, Alice heard that Sebelius was looking for a place to host the event, and offered her childhood home. “I was thrilled,” said Burton. “Access to healthcare feels like such an essential thing for a person to have.”
Sitting on sofas and folding chairs in the Burton’s living room, young mothers with severely ill children told of health care hospitalization bills over $100,000 per day. Re-living fears that providers would stop paying their expenses, they expressed profound relief that their children’s pre-existing conditions will no longer prevent them from being covered, and that insurance companies are blocked from denying coverage for having reached their lifetime limit. “What we need to realize,” Sebelius responded, “is that we are all vulnerable.”
Older women spoke of being denied coverage when their husbands died or lost their jobs, and of not being able to afford coverage for their own illnesses or for those of their college-age children. “I was just so afraid the system would fail me,” is a common refrain. Children up to age 26 are now covered under the new reform laws.
A young doctor told how the National Heath Service Corps was allowing her to pay off medical school debts by working in a community health center in the neighborhood where she grew up. The ACA has doubled the size of the NHS Corps in an effort to staff community health centers for the uninsured.
Women are more likely than men to be uninsured or under-insured, and to have responsibility for children with health issues, Sebelius reminded the group. She pointed out that, incredibly, 60 percent of health care plans don’t cover maternity care. Under the old system, rape, domestic violence and even caesarean sections were sometimes considered “pre-existing conditions” that were used to deny women life or health insurance. This will no longer be possible under the ACA. “Companies now will have to compete on price and service,” Sebelius said, “They can no longer cherry-pick the consumer.” She went on to point out that a government website, healthcare.gov, had recently been created to help consumers understand the new reforms and compare options in healthcare providers.
While America waits for a Supreme Court decision (expected in late June 2012) on whether the ACA’s “individual mandate” -– every American required to participate –- is constitutional, Ms. Sebelius is quietly moving forward with its implenentation. If her audience on St. Johns Road was an indicator, The American Heath Care Act is already working. A much larger audience watched Ms. Sebelius’ interview on Monday with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, where she didn’t get off quite as easily.