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Health care reform kicks in, feels good 

The partisan political battle over the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or whatever pejorative term the bill's opponents want to call it, is over. But you wouldn't really know that from the still-angry rhetoric being spouted by the bill's many detractors. Republican presidential hopefuls talk about plans to repeal health reform even though the proverbial frontrunner instituted a similar system in his home state.

Friday marks two years since President Obama signed the health reform bill into law and since then some, but not yet all, of the benefits have started to reach Joe Public. Children cannot be denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition. Young people can stay on their parents' health insurance plan until they are 26 years old. Preventive services, which will ultimately help control health care costs, have been added to some plans at no extra charge. Those are real changes — which can have a huge, positive impact on people's lives — that have nothing to do with petty attempts to pin a seemingly unpopular program to the president right before election time.

Take these things away, and folks are likely to notice. A lot of folks. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Affordable Care Act has had the following impact on Arkansans: 865,000 people who already had private insurance no longer have a lifetime limit on their health insurance plans; 439,000 people received added preventive services from their insurance companies without cost-sharing (that's including 110,000 children); 380,845 Medicare recipients have received preventive services; 23,837 young people have acquired health care coverage by staying on their parents' plans.

Those are real benefits. In this small state, chances are you know at least one of those people. Your little cousin who has a genetic disorder won't be kicked off of, or denied access to, a health plan simply because he was born a certain way. Your friend with chronic back pain no longer has to worry about reaching an arbitrary dollar limit that could negatively impact his coverage and his health.

And that's just what's happened so far. The act won't be fully implemented until 2014.

Of course, there is still the question of the Supreme Court, which will hear oral arguments on the law next week, and will likely render a decision on its constitutionality later in the summer. Opponents of the law are actively rooting against it. Lawmakers in Arkansas thought that the Supreme Court declaring unconstitutional the part of the law that required people to buy insurance was such a sure bet that they decided to pass on letting the state take full control of developing a health care exchange – the marketplace through which people will purchase private health insurance. The state is now working in a partnership with the federal government, the only one of its kind so far.

Polling indicates the public is getting past the politics of health reform. The more people learn about parts of the law that have gone into effect, and about the exchange, the more they support it. Efforts to put together an exchange in Arkansas are already underway. Insurance Commissioner Jay Bradford, along with his staff and other interested parties, are working out the details as we speak. A ruling on the mandate could change how all that shakes out, but it won't roll back the popular provisions already in place.

Mandate or no, people aren't going to want to see the new protections taken away. The important thing to ensure moving forward is that Arkansas has a health care system that protects children and families and a big part of that is going to mean keeping as much of the Affordable Care Act in place as possible.

Gerard Matthews is the communications director for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. He is a former associate editor of the Arkansas Times.

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