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Larsen declares health care win; Koster vows fight to repeal law

Mary K. Hallen shows the files she has amassed since her unemployment, including those to seek benefits such as health care insurance. Hallen has been uninsured since February, and said the new health care reform law probably won’t impact her.  - Liz Burlingame/Whidbey News-Times
Mary K. Hallen shows the files she has amassed since her unemployment, including those to seek benefits such as health care insurance. Hallen has been uninsured since February, and said the new health care reform law probably won’t impact her.
— image credit: Liz Burlingame/Whidbey News-Times

The vote to overhaul American’s health care system Sunday will go down in the history books as landmark legislation. But the verdict remains out on what the new law’s impact will be in Island County.

The House voted 219-212 to send legislation to President Barack Obama that they say would extend coverage to 32 million uninsured Americans, ban insurance company practices such as denying people coverage due to pre-existing conditions and reduce the deficit. It was signed into law yesterday.

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, who voted in favor of the measure, said Tuesday that the decision will give power back to the American consumer.

“It preserves choice and creates competition in the insurance market,” said the Second District Democrat from Lake Stevens.

“It’s a huge victory for our state.”

While some Whidbey Islanders agree, others say it’s still too early to determine the precise impact the reform will have locally.

Mary K. Hallen, best known as a longtime actress at the Whidbey Playhouse, said she has more questions than answers about health care. The 52-year-old single mom is one of the millions of Americans without health care coverage.

Hallen lost her job in December and her health care expired in February. Though she applied for insurance through the state, she was turned down.

“They thought I had too many assets to cover,” she said. Hallen said she uses six prescription medicines, including insulin for diabetes.

From what she’s read and heard in the media, Hallen worries she’ll be left uninsured.

“What immediately goes into effect are things that don’t affect me,” Hallen said. “I’m not a senior so it doesn’t help with my prescriptions, I’m not a child so I can’t get covered. They can’t deny me insurance, but I can’t afford it in the first place.”

Starting in six months, companies will no longer be allowed to deny coverage to sick children, parents can keep children on their health plan up to age 26 and lifetime caps on insurance benefits will end, among others.

Congressman Larsen said that for those who are out of work, the bill will provide immediate access to insurance for Americans who are uninsured because of a pre-existing condition through a temporary high-risk pool. It will be effective in 90 days.

Many of the law’s other provisions won’t be implemented until 2014; they include expanding Medicaid to people who earn slightly more than the federal poverty guidelines. In that year, the law will require everyone to have health insurance or pay a fine to the IRS.

Whidbey General Hospital, located in Coupeville, is taking a wait-and-see position on the new law.

“It’s really too soon to tell,” hospital spokesperson Trish Rose said. “We have to improve access for our uninsured neighbors without detracting from care that’s already available. And we have to do it in an affordable way. If the proposal addresses health care access and cost, hopefully we’ll have a successful reform.”

Millie Fonda, who works with a Central Whidbey group called Small Miracles, said she believes the bill is a step in the right direction. Small Miracles offers a one-time emergency medical fund to uninsured people with no recourse.

Fonda said she has seen several local people spiral downward financially due to health care costs and believes the current system needs fixing. She adds that insurance can be easily taken away due to job loss and critical illness.

“Right now, it’s very scary because even though you’ve always had insurance, tomorrow you may not,” she said.

Larsen said that opponents of the bill are “going to quickly realize the world did not end when we passed health care reform.”

“If you like your plan, you can keep your plan. If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor. If you change jobs, you can keep your coverage,” he said.

The bill passed Sunday without any Republican support, and Larsen’s vote quickly came under attack by his opponent in November’s election, John Koster, a Snohomish County Council member.

Koster said the process leading up to the passage of the bill was “rife with backroom deals” and that the bill “violated every rule of good statesmanship and sound economics.”

“If my campaign for the United States Congress is successful, I will do everything within my power to repeal this legislation and work to advance free market solutions that increase choice and accessibility to health care,” Koster said in a statement.

Larsen stated that he fought hard to make sure the health care reform bill included a fair deal for his state. The bill will ensure that the state is rewarded, not penalized, for providing high-quality, low-cost patient care, he said.

“The message that this bill was the right move for American families and our nation will be told over and over by seniors who see their prescription drug costs go down, and folks with pre-existing conditions, who will no longer be denied coverage, and by small business owners, who can add employees to their payrolls because health care is more affordable,” he said.

Tonight, March 23, Larsen will host a telephone town hall for people to call in and discuss health care, jobs and the economy. The talk will begin at 6:30 p.m. and the phone number is 877-229-8493. Type in the code number 13740.

The congressman will also give future talks on Whidbey Island about the bill, said communications director Emily Halnon.

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