Stephanie Grace: Beyond politics, law has personal impact

You know all those angry words and dire warnings you’ve been hearing about Obamacare? Now would be a good time to block them out for a while — particularly if you don’t have health insurance or if you pay for an individual policy yourself.

Today marks the rollout of the insurance exchanges that are at the heart of the contentious Affordable Care Act. And whether you support or oppose the vast overhaul of the country’s health care system, it’s well worth understanding your rights under the new system, as well as the potential personal costs and benefits.

This is a very big deal, to paraphrase Vice President Joe Biden, who, caught on open mic at the 2010 ceremony where President Barack Obama signed the law, put it in terms so colorful that they can’t be repeated in a family newspaper.

In Louisiana, as many as 350,000 uninsured people who earn between 100 and 400 percent of the poverty rate could now qualify for government subsidies, according to state analyses.

Many more will be able to purchase private insurance at group rates, just as big employers do, as opposed to on the open market, where the individual policies can be prohibitively expensive or, for those with pre-existing conditions, outright unattainable. The new law requires participating companies to provide insurance to all, and bans penalties for pre-existing conditions.

The program offers a range of options, from low-cost, high-deductible plans to costlier comprehensive coverage. Open enrollment runs six months; those who sign up by Dec. 15 can get insurance starting Jan. 1.

That, not coincidentally, is when the penalty for not obtaining insurance if it’s available to you kicks in. The penalties are designed to start small but grow over time.

The idea, first developed and embraced but later disavowed by leading conservatives, is that everyone likely will consume health care at some point, and should therefore pay into the system if they’re able. Getting younger and healthier people into the system, the thinking goes, protects them in case of catastrophe and also subsidizes older, more costly patients.

It’s far from perfect, but it can’t help but benefit many Louisiana residents who until now have had only bad options.

Yet these days, the political rhetoric, particularly from Obamacare critics, is focusing on everything but that.

In his new ad opposing the Department of Justice’s unrelated legal challenge to the state’s private school voucher program, Gov. Bobby Jindal boasts that he’s “fighting to keep Obamacare out of Louisiana.”

Translation: Although the federal government would have picked up the whole cost at first and most of it down the road, he rebuffed an expansion of Medicaid, leaving the poorest of the uninsured out of luck. He also refused to set up a state-based insurance exchange, leaving the feds to do it — although his Department of Health and Hospitals is training staff in the basics of the exchanges and will refer eligible applicants.

Meanwhile, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., has been blocking an energy bill because it doesn’t include his amendment that would force not only members of Congress but their staffs onto the exchanges, without the possibility of either subsidies or the traditional employer contributions that millions of Americans will continue to receive.

And Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, has warned professional sports leagues of participating in the Obama administration’s campaign to spread the word on the exchanges — or as he put it in a scathing letter, “being coerced into doing their dirty work for them.”

Republicans in Congress voted, repeatedly and to no avail, to defund the Affordable Care Act, even before they threatened to shut down the government if the law isn’t delayed or stopped.

Of course, opponents aren’t the only ones with a pressing political agenda.

Affordable Care Act supporters need people to sign up in large numbers to make the president’s signature legislation a success. Opponents need the numbers to be low, to prove that it’s the failure they insist it already is.

Still, it would be a real shame if people let their own politics keep them from making the best decision for themselves and their families, whatever that may be. It would be a travesty if they let someone else’s politics do it.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.