The Obama administration sought Friday to show voters concrete benefits from the new health care law, taking steps to provide insurance coverage to people with pre-existing health conditions.
The law the president signed March 23 requires creation within 90 days of buying pools to target uninsured people who can't get coverage because of health conditions. Five billion dollars is being spent on the program, which will remain in place until the sweeping health law is fully implemented in 2014, when insurance companies will have to take all comers.
The program will build on buying pools that already exist in some states. The federal government will let states take the lead in setting up new pools or will administer them in states that don't want to participate on their own. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius wrote to states Friday asking them to report back by the end of April on how they want to proceed.
The new program will provide "immediate relief for potentially millions of Americans with pre-existing conditions, like diabetes or high-blood pressure, who have been shut out of the insurance system," Sebelius told reporters on a conference call.
The administration is under pressure to turn the health care bill from a political negative into a positive ahead of the fall elections and to undercut Republican calls to repeal the law. In recent speeches, President Barack Obama has dared the GOP to push for repeal, calling on Republicans to look uninsured voters in the face and tell them newfound benefits will be yanked.
Administration officials believe their best defense against Republican criticism of the bill is a good offense highlighting its benefits, especially things that take effect quickly. In addition to the new buying pools, that includes tax credits for small businesses, a $250 rebate for seniors who fall into Medicare's prescription drug coverage "doughnut hole," and new requirements for insurers to cover kids with pre-existing conditions.
"Over the next couple of months, we'll be making a lot of announcements just like this," Sebelius said. "The law the president signed was carefully written to get benefits to Americans as quickly as possible without disrupting or overburdening the health care system."
Some details about the new buying pools remain fuzzy, including how many people might qualify, how much they will have to pay in premiums, how existing state programs would be affected and whether $5 billion will be enough. Some experts have said the money will fall far short and will likely run out in the next couple years.
The program is available to people with pre-existing conditions who have been uninsured for at least six months. Jeanne Lambrew, director of the HHS Office of Health Reform, said on Friday's conference call that applicants should end up paying standard rates for the individual insurance market in their region, since they will not be allowed to be charged more because they suffer from cancer or some other ailment.
More than 30 states already have similar buying pools that insure some 200,000 U.S. residents, according to a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation in January. But rules for the state pools are in many cases different than those in the new federal law, and discrepancies will have to be worked out.