I recently had a wide-ranging and delightful conversation—portions of which I want to share with you today and Monday—with former U.S. Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum Baker.
A senator reflects on HIPAA's legacy
Kassebaum, the name she went by in the Senate as a three-term Republican from Kansas and before her marriage to former Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.), was a co-sponsor along with Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
Kassebaum, now 79, is living with her husband in Huntsville, Baker's hometown in the Cumberlands of northeastern Tennessee. We spoke by phone, touching base on the 15th anniversary of President Bill Clinton signing HIPAA into law on Aug. 21, 1996.
The Institute of Medicine has concluded that as many as 18,000 Americans die each year for lack of healthcare coverage. HIPAA banned large employer health plans from excluding people from coverage for their pre-existing medical conditions when they moved from one job and one HIPAA-covered health plan to another.
How many Americans have been kept from joining the ranks of the uninsured—at least for their pre-existing conditions—by that key HIPAA reform? No one knows.
How many lives have been saved, if any? No one knows.
Did it make a difference? Absolutely.
Back in the early 1990s, my colleagues at work had their own collective frustrations with pre-HIPAA insurance-industry policy on pre-existing conditions. I shared the story with Sen. Kassebaum, thanking her for helping alleviate the problem. Our troubles were not ours alone, however.
Soon after HIPAA passed, "He (Kennedy) heard it and I did, from a lot of people I didn't know, that it had helped them through some hard times in a limited way," Kassebaum said. Since then, she said she has received letters and personal testimonies to the same effect.
"This was after I retired and I was catching a cab in New York," Kassebaum said. "I had a couple of my grandchildren with me." The cab driver turned and addressed her by name, saying he recognized her from C-SPAN. "He said, 'Your health legislation with Senator Kennedy saved my family.' I just about broke into tears. Sometimes you realize there are those you touch with legislation."
"I think it was certainly worth doing, and I was thoroughly pleased that we could do something that in a small way, and this was a small thing, to address problems in healthcare," she said.
"If you had insurance and lost your job and were being covered for pre-existing conditions, or anybody in your family, if they were covered, you could not lose their coverage if you lost you job. That helped a lot of people and gave them some certainty."
Even so, HIPAA will most likely be remembered as a foundation for federal policy toward the promotion of health information technology, Kassebaum said. We'll deal with that topic Monday.
Follow Joseph Conn on Twitter: @MHJConn.
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