Illustration by Megan Laird.
Illustration by Megan Laird.

After several months of intense debate and name-calling in the House and the Senate, President Barack Obama signed his heavily touted health care reform package into law last Wednesday, marking the biggest overhaul of the United States health care system since Theodore Roosevelt was in office.

The news set off celebrations and sighs of relief amongst many residents in Santa Cruz who have had trouble gaining access to health insurance in the past. Under Obama’s plan, an estimated two-thirds of the 40,000 uninsured people in Santa Cruz County will now be covered.

“Everyone involved in this important debate recognizes that this effort has been a long, tough and often contentious road,” said president and CEO of Catholic Healthcare West Lloyd H. Dean in a statement. The company owns and operates Dominican Hospital, located in mid-county Santa Cruz.

“This legislation addresses the real problems in our healthcare system: too many people without coverage and the high cost of care for all,” he added.

One of the most significant reforms in the health care package is a mandate that requires all Americans to carry health insurance by 2014 or risk being fined. It also includes extended dependent coverage for young adults under their parents’ insurance plans until the age of 26, and a provision that ends health insurance policies that exclude persons with preexisting conditions.

Valerie Diaz works as an instructional aide in special education classrooms in Santa Cruz County and has an autistic daughter. Diaz says she will gain the most benefit from the fact that health insurers will no longer be able to deny coverage to adults or children with disabilities or illnesses.

Diaz’s daughter Erica was covered by a state-run program “Healthy Families” until she turned 19, at which point Diaz was forced to look elsewhere for a provider to cover Erica’s health care needs. Necessary medications for her cost $1,000 a month.

However, Diaz’s daughter was denied by health insurance companies who consider autism a preexisting condition and was unable to benefit from MediCal because of the money she makes through Social Security. As a result, Diaz had to sign up for her employer’s health insurance — despite the fact that she was already insured elsewhere — so she could put her daughter under that plan as a dependent. This was the only provider who would accept her.

“Definitely the preexisting condition [is the most important provision] whenever that takes effect, which will hopefully be soon,” Diaz said. “It’ll be huge for me and my daughter because it will save me money in the long run … if I can get her on her own policy that will save me at least $400 a month.”

Bill Tysseling, executive director of the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce, says that the health care package as a whole proves beneficial for local small business owners and their employees.

“Their workers now have access to healthcare that is affordable and guaranteed, and it means they can compete with big businesses and the government for the same employees and not have to worry about whether they can pay for health insurance,” Tysseling said. “The overall picture is that for small businesses this is probably a better deal on average.”

Not all small business owners would agree that the bill makes for a better deal. Ted Burke, who is the co-owner of Shadowbrook Restaurant in Capitola and former president of the California Restaurant Association, calls the recently passed health care legislation “a bureaucratic nightmare.”

He believes it will cause a lot more harm than good for small businesses. Burkepoints to a new regulation which requires businesses with 50 or more workers to provide health insurance or risk a $2,000 penalty for each uninsured person.

“Overall, I find the legislation extremely harmful to our industry and country,” Burke said. “The number of employees has no relationship to profitability … Shadowbrook has a hundred employees, and we’re only open for dinner, but are we considered a massive business? Hell no. But according to the law we are, and we’re supposed to have the same financial resources as an attorney’s office with a hundred employees, and that’s just plain wrong.”

Burke went on to explain that, unless this new provision is changed or repealed, his business would either be forced to change their current policy or drop health insurance altogether and risk facing the fine, which Burke says would result in “far less bookkeeping and money.”

Larry deGhetaldi, president of the Santa Cruz division of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, also believes that while aspects of the healthcare reform are positive, it left out several key components.

For example, physicians who take Medicare patients will see a 21 percent cut in compensation. It also omits a provision proposed by Congressman Sam Farr that would reclassify counties like San Diego and Santa Cruz as urban counties to modify medicare payments. He called them “two painful omissions.”

Overall, however, deGhetaldi says that much of the criticism that this bill has received lacks merit.

“I think it’s just a manifestation of the political polarization in the country … people assume that this is socialized medicine but this is the furthest thing in the world from that. The criticism is nonsense.”

Meanwhile, Valerie Diaz is hopeful that the health care reform will be beneficial to many Santa Cruz residents like herself and her daughter.

“All these people don’t have any insurance and aren’t being able to get their medication, so if they could get on any kind of a plan it has to be better than what they have now,” she said. “But I hope the politics can get out of it because this is a right, not a privilege.”