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Health care reform is cutting costs, improving care

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This week marks the third anniversary of the Affordable Care Act. For Marylanders, that means a health care system that is stronger than it was three years ago, and a future that looks even brighter.

Marylanders who have health insurance now have more security, thanks to new insurance market reforms and consumer protections put into place by the law. Preventive services like mammograms and flu shots are newly available for free to 1.5 million people with private insurance plans. About 48,950 Maryland Medicare beneficiaries with the highest prescription drug costs have saved an average of $768 on their medications. And Marylanders are now protected from some of the worst insurance industry abuses, like lifetime coverage caps that could cut off benefits when people need them most.

The law has also begun to curb rising health costs across the system by cracking down on waste and fraud and creating powerful incentives for hospitals to spend their resources more wisely. These reforms have already led to significant improvements in health outcomes. That includes the first drop in hospital readmissions for Medicare beneficiaries on record, which means when people with Medicare go home from the hospital, they are more likely to stay healthy and less likely to have to return for additional care.

Just as important, this progress has contributed to the slowest sustained growth in health spending in 50 years. National health care spending has now grown at historic lows for three consecutive years — and Medicare and Medicaid spending is growing even slower. In 2012, Medicare spending per beneficiary rose by less than half of 1 percent, while Medicaid spending actually dropped by nearly 2 percent.

The health care law is demonstrating the right way to deal with rising costs. Instead of simply shifting the burden onto seniors and the needy, it's bringing down costs across the system by improving care coordination and cutting waste. And it's holding insurance companies accountable by limiting how much of your premium they can spend on marketing and overhead. This protection has already produced $27.9 million in rebates for residents of Maryland.

For many Marylanders, better coverage choices are on the way too. Starting Oct. 1, a new Health Insurance Marketplace called the Maryland Health Connection will open for enrollment in Maryland. The marketplace will give individuals, families and small business owners a simple, convenient way to find a private insurance plan that fits their budget.

Beginning next year, it will also finally be illegal for insurance companies to discriminate against people with a pre-existing medical condition or disability. It's long overdue that we ended a practice that allowed insurance companies to deny coverage to pregnant women, cancer survivors and people with serious illnesses who needed coverage most. And the insurance industry will also be forbidden to charge women more just because of their gender.

Making it possible for more families and small business owners to get affordable coverage will benefit all Marylanders. Today, we pay for care in a backwards way. Uninsured people often go without prevention. And when their conditions worsen and they end up in the emergency room, those costs get passed along to everyone else in the form of higher premiums. This amounts to a hidden tax of $1,000 added to the premiums of the average family. Covering more people will save all of us money by reducing the cost of uncompensated care.

The health care law is benefiting Marylanders by providing more security for those with coverage, better options for those without it, and more affordable care for everyone. More work remains to be done, but we are moving in the right direction.

Kathleen Sebelius is secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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