iBerkshires - Neal Defense Obamacare in Williamstown

News Article

Date: Feb. 7, 2014
Location: Williamstown, MA

By Andy McKeever

With the Affordable Care Act looking like it is here to stay, Congress expects to continue tweaking the law.

In the State of the Union, President Barack Obama called on Congress to stop perpetual votes to repeal the act -- Republicans have filed more than 40 repeal bills -- and instead work on bettering it.

The Berkshire's voice in the House of Representatives is happy with the bill and has aspects of it he will work to preserve.

"There will be opportunities to make changes. But not to miss the point, we are not going to change a ban on pre-existing conditions. We are not going to change capping out-of-pocket expenses, keeping 26-year-olds on their parents health care. Women's health care and preventive services are expanded dramatically, that's not going to change," U.S. Rep. Richard Neal said on Friday after touring Williams College's Thompson Health Center.

"The question is how are you going to use the market to discipline price."

Since its inception, 10 million people have now signed up, Neal said, despite the glitches in the federal website. He says the technological aspect of health care can be fixed but managing costs can't be done until everyone is signed up.

"I don't know how you manage costs if you don't have everyone in the system," he said.

Neal said the goal was never to reverse health-care cost trends but instead stabilize them. This year, he says costs are rising an average of 3 percent, which is a far cry from the 12 percent years ago.

"Medical inflation is the lowest it's been in years," Neal said.

With health care being a major contributor to federal, state and municipal budgets, the system is continually up for debate. Neal's trip to Williamstown was intended to keep him in touch with health providers.

"Health care is playing out with all different experiments across the nation and any chance I get to hear more about how services are delivered, I think it is very helpful to the ongoing debate," Neal said. "I don't think anyone thinks the battle over health care is finished."

The health center provides various services to the students at no charge -- other than that covered by insurance. Director of Health Services Ruth Harrison told Neal that the Affordable Care Act has helped by ensuring students have either the school's health care plan or their own. The center sees 11,000 student visits per year.

"We are their primary care from the time they leave home," Harrison said, later adding that some students hadn't had any health care prior to arriving on campus.

But when it comes to services the organization can't provide and needs to refer, students are may be saddled with heavy costs, she said. Additionally, once students graduate, they no longer qualify for the school's health insurance and have to seek their own.

The way to lower costs, in Harrison's opinion, is to get as many people enrolled in insurance plans. Neal and Harrison discussed emergency rooms getting left with bills from uninsured patients, making it more difficult for the providers financially.

"Having millions of uninsured people is not a way to lower health care costs," Harrison said.

She told Neal that she would want to see school-based health care provide preventive services and that she supports more community clinics.

The congressman stopped at the health care center in the afternoon after spending the morning teaching a civics class at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and touring the college's new science center.