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Bingaman touts health care

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By Don Pace

U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., told a an audience at Luna Community College on Friday that the health care bill President Barack Obama signed into law two weeks ago is a major step forward for the country.

Bingaman highlighted a number of parts of the new health insurance law that he said will benefit New Mexicans. As far as paying for the the bill, he said other states will be paying more.    

“There are additional taxes, but the taxes apply on income above $200,000, so for those people, their Medicare payroll tax will go up by a little over 1 percent. That will affect folks in our state, but frankly, it won’t affect all that many. We are a low-income state, and don’t have too many people making over $200,000 in income. So the tax doesn’t hit us like it would in New York or California,” Bingaman said.  

Bingaman said the cost of medical care in New Mexico is rising and increasingly unaffordable. He said the state has had some of the greatest increases in health insurance premiums in the nation.

“New Mexicans spend more on health insurance premiums, as a percentage of their income, than almost all other Americans. This will protect New Mexicans and folks all around the country from some of the practices that the insurance industry has engaged in historically,” Bingaman said.

Bingaman said he was not suggesting that in all cases, there would be substantial cuts in the cost of health care.

“As you know, we’ve seen substantial increases each year in the premiums that people have to pay,” but because of this bill, “those premium increases will be less, and the market will be much more stable than it has been,” Bingaman said.

Bingaman said even though the bill took effect on the day President Obama signed it, it will take about four years to phase in.

“The biggest, most expensive and controversial parts of the bill take effect in 2014, but there are also some things that take effect right now,” Bingaman said.

Some of the immediate benefits include access to affordable coverage for children with pre-existing conditions. Beginning in 2014, this prohibition will apply to people of all ages.

The reform immediately provides a $250 rebate to Medicare beneficiaries who hit the Medicare prescription drug coverage gap, or “doughnut hole.” In 2011, the reform also guarantees 50 percent discounts on brand-name drugs purchased by low and middle-income Americans.

There will also be protections from rescissions of existing coverage.

“One of the worst practices, in my view, which a lot of insurance companies have engaged in, is that if you come down with a serious illness, they start looking for ways to rescind your coverage. That will be prohibited,” Bingaman said.

The new law requires plans in the individual and small group market to spend at least 80 percent of premiums on health benefits, not insurance company administrative expenses. The reform requires insurers to allow parents to opt to maintain family coverage for young adults up to 26, effective in six months.

“There’s substantial funding in the bill to cover our community health centers in New Mexico, and this will allow us to have an even more capable network of community health centers throughout New Mexico, which is very important to us,” Bingaman said.

Handing out a graph showing health insurance coverage in New Mexico, before and after reform, a pie chart showed 26 percent had no coverage, including undocumented immigrants.

“The only state that is worse off than us is Texas, where about 28 percent of the people don’t have coverage,” Bingaman said.

The graph showed that before the law took effect, 38 percent of the state’s population was covered by private insurance. Now 53 percent will be able to get coverage, he said.

“To my mind, this is the best case we have for why this is important and valuable for New Mexico,” Bingaman said. 

People covered by Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, will increase by about 7 percent and those covered by Medicare will remain at 14 percent.

Bingaman told the audience that there is no requirement for small businesses with less than 50 or fewer employees to offer health insurance. However, he said the bill sets up an insurance exchange and a tax credit to help in those areas.

Earlier in the day, Bingaman toured San Miguel County’s new wastewater treatment plant. He also toured the New Mexico Wood Business Park.