Did Gov't Stretch Health Care Stat?

By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — It's a striking statistic.

Without President Barack Obama's health care law, as many as 129 million Americans — half of those under age 65 — could be denied coverage or charged more because of a pre-existing medical condition.

The new estimate by the Health and Human Services Department is more than twice as high as a figure that supporters of the law were using last year.

It just might need an asterisk.

Most of those millions of people are covered by health insurance at work and don't face any immediate risk of being denied care for their pre-existing medical problems. And as a rule, those who take a new job and sign up in their employer's health plan are already protected by a 1990s law.

"It's a hypothetical situation, not an actual situation," said economist Paul Ginsburg, president of the Center for Studying Health System Change. "Most of these people don't have a problem, with or without health reform, because they get their coverage through their employment, and employer coverage takes everybody." The center is a nonpartisan research organization.

The administration's estimate was released Jan. 18, just ahead of a vote to repeal Obama's health law in the Republican-led House. Without the law, up to 129 million people with health conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, arthritis or cancer would be at risk of losing health insurance when they need it most or being denied coverage altogether, HHS said.

"It's like trying to estimate hurricane fatalities by the number of people living on the seashore," said Edmund Haislmaier, a health policy expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation. Most people in the path of a hurricane would evacuate, some would hunker down in reinforced homes; only a fraction would face the worst consequences, said Haislmaier.

"People are not going to suddenly face losing coverage if you repeal this law," he added. The Heritage Foundation supports repeal.

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