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Afforable Care Act may not be

Lawmakers’ top goal was ‘protect the poorest’

– To Megan Hildebrandt, President Obama’s Affordable Care Act means she can no longer be denied health insurance because of her lymphatic cancer.

There’s a big catch: Coverage for the 28-year-old artist and many other Americans without insurance will come at a potentially unaffordable cost.

Hildebrandt, who relies on hospital charity, will face more than $1,000 in annual premiums, by one estimate, and probably more in out-of-pocket expenses even with new federal subsidies. She and her husband have a combined income of $25,000.

“It’s great that I’m not going to have to pay some hugely impossible amount,” said Hildebrandt, who lives in Austin, Texas. “Though now I’m in the health care system and still have to pay money that we can’t really afford.”

The landmark health care law, which survived the threats of repeal and a Supreme Court review, now confronts another hurdle: living up to expectations. As the administration spells out the details, many uninsured will be surprised at how much they will have to pay. It may involve “very substantial amounts,” and “there still will be a significant number of people who can’t afford health coverage,” said Ron Pollack, head of Families USA, a consumer group that backs the law.

A family of four earning $75,000 will pay $7,125 in annual premiums and as much as $8,333 in co-pays and deductibles, according to a preliminary estimate by the Kaiser Family Foundation. A single 40-year-old earning $30,000 will pay $2,509 in premiums and as much as $3,125 in cost sharing. For a 60-year-old making $40,000, the amount will be $3,800 in premiums and up to $4,167 in out-of-pocket costs, according to Kaiser.

Those costs will come even as the government spends about $1.16 trillion over the next decade to expand coverage to 30 million uninsured people.

“People are often surprised at how expensive health insurance is once they have to pay for their own,” said Karen Pollitz, a senior fellow at Kaiser Family Foundation. “The subsidies will make that better, but they won’t make the cost disappear.”

The administration recently unveiled regulations to implement the ban on discriminating against those with pre-existing conditions. Insurers would be limited to varying premiums by age, family size, geography and tobacco use.

To be sure, the costs will be far less than what many with pre-existing conditions would pay in the absence of the overhaul. The law is also designed to reduce expenses for those who already have insurance because hospitals providing charitable care make up those costs by charging others more.

“While we’re only dimly aware of it, we all pay,” said former Congressional Budget Office Director Robert Reischauer. “There shouldn’t be free riders.”

What’s more, there are provisions in the law capping the financial burden the requirements will impose on the uninsured. If costs exceed 8 percent of their income, they are exempt from the individual mandate to buy insurance. And people can choose to pay a penalty instead of buying insurance. The fine would be $695, or 2.5 percent of a person’s income, whichever is greater.

The law, enacted in March 2010, requires virtually all Americans to have insurance by 2014. It will expand coverage to the uninsured by offering them subsidies to buy policies on newly established health-insurance exchanges and making it easier for lower-income people to qualify for Medicaid, the federal- and state-funded insurance system for the poor.

In 2019, some families could see their premiums climb four times as quickly as the help they receive from the government, according to CBO. That means they will have to bear a larger share of the burden of purchasing coverage.

Lawmakers sought to “protect the poorest” yet weren’t able to offer as much help to others as they would have liked because of budgetary constraints, said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. “We did all that we could do,” he said.

“That will be a major challenge,” said John McDonough, a public-health professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. “It makes the affordability picture far worse.”