Tainted water, and NFIB views on exchanges

Updating two Georgia Health News articles:

President Obama signed a bill this week promising health benefits for U.S. Marines and families who were exposed to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, N.C., from 1957 to 1987.

The legislation hits home for me.

I was a civilian worker at Camp Lejeune from the mid-1970s through 1984, and while teaching in a classroom without air conditioning, I drank lots from water from the junior high and high school drinking fountains.

As I explained in this GHN article, I have suffered no health effects that I know of, and I have been unable to determine whether my schools’ water in particular was tainted.

Health officials, though, say up to 1 million people may have been exposed on the sprawling Marine base.

Jerry Ensminger of Elizabethtown, N.C., attended the bill signing ceremony Monday. Ensminger, according to an AP article, led the fight to get more information about the water problems at Camp Lejeune after his daughter Janey died in 1985 at age 9 from a rare childhood leukemia.

The high levels of toxic chemicals in the groundwater, probably caused by leaking fuel tanks and a nearby dry cleaning business, included PCE (perchloroethylene), TCE (tricholoroethylene), benzene, and vinyl chloride. The latter two are known cancer-causing chemicals, while PCE and TCE are each “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,’’ according to the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry.

Marines, their family members and civilian workers on the base during those years have reported birth defects, children’s leukemias, other cancers, and various ailments. Twenty Marines or sons of Marines who lived or were stationed at Lejeune reported male breast cancer, a rare disease, a 2009 CNN article said.

The Marines I knew at Camp Lejeune were incredibly dedicated to serving their country. Their children, whom I taught, were eager to learn and unusually knowledgeable about the world, because of the many deployments of their parents, in the U.S. and around the world.

I’m personally glad that the Congress acted in rare bipartisan fashion to help anyone who has suffered health effects from the water at Lejeune.

Obama said at the Oval Office ceremony, “Sadly, this act alone will not bring back those we’ve lost, including Jane Ensminger, but it will honor their memory by making a real difference for those who are still suffering.’’

The future of exchanges

After writing about health insurance exchanges last week, GHN had a conversation about their merits and drawbacks with the state director of the National Federation of Business, a Washington-based organization that represents small businesses.

The 2010 health reform law, also known as the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, requires that the exchanges be up and running in the individual states in January 2014. An exchange is a kind of online marketplace that allows a person or organization to do comparison shopping for health insurance.

NFIB had a prime role in the court fight against the health reform law, a fight that ended in June when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law. NFIB opposed the ACA on the grounds that it would increase health care costs overall.

Still, many people of various stripes say small businesses can benefit from an online marketplace, in which they can band together and obtain better prices for health insurance.

And NFIB has recognized for years that health care isn’t affordable for many small firms. Surveys of NFIB members show health care costs have consistently been the No. 1 problem for small businesses.

Gov. Nathan Deal’s study committee on exchanges recommended in December that Georgia create an exchange for small firms. After the court upheld the ACA, though, Deal decided to put off that decision until the elections in November.

Deal, like many Republicans, is hoping for national GOP victories. If Republicans emerge in control of both houses of Congress, they have vowed to repeal the ACA. And presidential candidate Mitt Romney has said that if elected, he will do what he can to weaken the health reform law, whether or not a repeal measure passes.

Kyle Jackson, the state director of NFIB and a member of the governor’s exchange committee, said last week that he believes Deal’s decision to wait was the right one.

Yet Jackson also said an insurance exchange has potential to help in containing costs. Under the current insurance system, he said, “small businesses have no bargaining power.’’

If the ACA survives political challenges, Jackson would like Georgia to create its own insurance exchange, rather than be among the states that let the federal government run one for them.

Jackson said he doubts that the federal government “will have Georgia’s best interests in mind.’’

Georgia, through its study committee, has done “a lot of legwork’’ on formulating a plan for an insurance exchange for small firms, he said.

“We could do it pretty quickly, getting it legislatively done,’’ Jackson said.

But while he sees potential in small businesses combining forces in an exchange, he doesn’t see the idea as a cure for higher health costs.

“There are some benefits, but it’s not going to be the magic bullet to control costs.’’

Speaking of costs, a new survey by the National Business Group on Health found that large employers—with much more bargaining clout than small firms — on average are budgeting for a 7 percent increase in the cost of health benefits in 2013 — the same as 2012, but lower than the growth of costs in the previous three years.

The Business Group’s CEO, Helen Darling, said that while the growth in costs is slowing, the benefits increases “are simply not sustainable.”

Here’s a recent New York Times article about the task the federal government faces in running exchanges in states that don’t create their own.