As I sit beside my 92-year-old father in his hospital bed in Kingsport, Tenn., there are reminders all around me of why I left my job in the insurance industry to become an advocate for health-care reform -- and why all Americans have reasons to be grateful that many provisions of the reform bill that became law six months ago are taking effect now.
To begin with, there is my dad himself. He must take costly medications every day. This year he and millions of other older Americans fell into the Medicare Part D "doughnut hole." They have to spend thousands of dollars for medicines they need before their drug benefit will kick back in. The new law has already begun to reduce their pharmacy expenses.
The woman in the next room has breast cancer. She will no longer have to worry that her insurer might arbitrarily cancel her coverage. One breast-cancer survivor told Congress last year that her insurer canceled her coverage because she had forgotten to note on her application that she had been treated for acne. Starting today, health plans will be banned from dropping people when they get sick, except in cases of fraud.
A young man down the hall is likely uninsured and will be on the hook for a big hospital bill. A large percentage of young people are uninsured because they can't afford premiums. Starting today, this young man will be able to stay on his parents' policy until he turns 26 if he doesn't have access to benefits where he works.
A local small-business owner whom a doctor introduced me to can't afford to offer benefits to his 25 employees. He and 4 million other small-business owners are now eligible for a tax credit of up to 35 percent of the cost of premiums. The number of small businesses offering health benefits fell from 61 percent in 1993 to 38 percent in 2008 because of rising premiums. The new law will help reverse that trend.
Several other important patient protections also go into effect today. Health plans will be prohibited from placing lifetime caps on benefits, and they will not be able to deny coverage to children because of pre-existing conditions. New health plans will be required to cover preventive services with no copayments.
While I would have liked to see the final legislation include tighter restrictions on insurance premiums and the choice of a public health insurance option to promote greater competition, the new law is an important start that will ultimately benefit every American. It will protect us all from insurance industry practices that should have been outlawed or changed years ago.
For those who think the law should be repealed, I ask them to just stop and think how their loved ones might already be better off than they were six months ago -- and how much better off we all will be when the law has been fully implemented in 2014.
(This appeared originally in The Tennessean in Nashville.)