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Making The Fine Print A Little Less Fine

The horror stories you read about American health care frequently focus on people who've lost their insurance. And, lord knows, there are way, way too many of those stories to tell.

But people with insurance experience plenty of horrors, too. Time's Karen Tumulty wrote a moving cover story on one such case--her brother's--a few weeks ago. I've told a few of these tales myself. And studies suggest there are plenty more out there.

A common theme in many of these stories is confusion. When people buy insurance, they often have no idea what they're buying. Even if they've done the due diligence to investigate coverage details, they'll have a tough time figuring out the fine print of patient cost-sharing, exceptions to coverage, etc. And good luck if they want to try comparing coverage. No two insurance policies will present their information in the same way.

One way to address this problem is through regulation of benefits: You set minimum standards for what all insurance policies cover and then hold insurers to those standards. Another, complementary response is to make it easier for consumers to learn about plans before they sign up.

Such is the goal of the "Informed Consumer Choices in Health Care Act of 2009," introduced last week by Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) along with Representatives Rosa DaLauro (D-CT) and Allyson Schwartz (D-PA). The bill's signature feature is a requirement that insurers detail coverage on an easy-to-read, uniform "Coverage Facts" label modeled on the "Nutrition Facts" that the goverment requires on food.

The label, taken straight from a paper written by Georgetown's Karen Pollitz and published by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, might look something like this:

OK, this label is not exactly "simple." But you get the idea. And it makes a lot of sense, as DeLauro explained in a recent interview: "There are hidden traps in insurance. Even the most sophisticated consumers don't realize what's there until its too late. People are struggling so much with heatlh care, it just seems we ought to make it as easy and simple for the as possible."

The proposal has a pretty impressive bloodline. Rockefeller is a longtime, staunch advocate for improving access to health care; Pollitz, who seems to the chief architect, is among the very top policy experts in the country.

And if you're wondering why they're pouring time and effort into a such a narrow proposal when Congress is considering much broader measures, the answer is that they hope this bill--and others like it you'll be seeing in the coming weeks--will become part of the comprehensive reform Congress hopes to pass this summer.

Remember, while Preisdent Obama and his allies have more or less agreed on the framework for reform, they have to fill in the details. And those details can make a huge difference.

--Jonathan Cohn