This is the freedom that the President keeps emphasizing. Yet the bills appear to say otherwise. It's worth diving into the weeds -- the territory where most pundits and politicians don't seem to have ventured.
The legislation divides the insured into two main groups, and those two groups are treated differently with respect to their current plans. The first are employees covered by the Employee Retirement Security Act of 1974. ERISA regulates companies that are self-insured, meaning they pay claims out of their cash flow, and don't have real insurance. Those are the GEs (GE, Fortune 500) and Time Warners (TWX, Fortune 500) and most other big companies.
The House bill states that employees covered by ERISA plans are "grandfathered." Under ERISA, the plans can do pretty much what they want -- they're exempt from standard packages and community rating and can reward employees for healthy lifestyles even in restrictive states.
But read on.
The bill gives ERISA employers a five-year grace period when they can keep offering plans free from the restrictions of the "qualified" policies offered on the exchanges. But after five years, they would have to offer only approved plans, with the myriad rules we've already discussed. So for Americans in large corporations, "keeping your own plan" has a strict deadline. In five years, like it or not, you'll get dumped into the exchange. As we'll see, it could happen a lot earlier.
The outlook is worse for the second group. It encompasses employees who aren't under ERISA but get actual insurance either on their own or through small businesses. After the legislation passes, all insurers that offer a wide range of plans to these employees will be forced to offer only "qualified" plans to new customers, via the exchanges.
The employees who got their coverage before the law goes into effect can keep their plans, but once again, there's a catch. If the plan changes in any way -- by altering co-pays, deductibles, or even switching coverage for this or that drug -- the employee must drop out and shop through the exchange. Since these plans generally change their policies every year, it's likely that millions of employees will lose their plans in 12 months.