The first-phase of the new health care law has fully kicked in, and despite ominous predictions from opponents that reform would destroy our health care system, things seem to be going OK.

But that hasn’t stopped the attack on health care.

Last week, the House voted along party lines (239-187) to cut off the funding needed to implement the law. Among the votes – gutting a provision that would make sure insurance companies spend at least 80 percent of your premium on health care, rather than spending it on CEO salaries, marketing and overhead.

Senate leaders have said they will reject the House budget, citing the dramatic cuts in health care, environmental programs, education and enforcement of laws already on the books (one example – the House voted to block a new public database where consumers could check for unsafe products and toys). If an interim budget isn’t hashed out by March 4, there’s the potential the federal government could shut down.

But funding isn’t the only tactic to gut the health care law, which will phase in fully during the next three years. Opponents are trying an outright repeal, stall-and-obstruct tactics, and ultimately legal challenges to stop the benefits promised under the law.

Last month the House passed a straight-up repeal by a vote of 245-189, including three Democrats. Shortly afterward, Senate Republicans tried a similar repeal, but the bill narrowly failed 51-47, with two Democrats, Sens. Warner and Lieberman, abstaining.

Meanwhile, committees in the Republican-controlled House are holding countless hearings on the impact the new law would have on jobs, the budget, and Medicare, as well as the law’s constitutionality. They have brought the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, and head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, Don Berwick, to the Hill for grilling sessions that illuminated little, but created lots of opportunities for partisan grandstanding.

If you’re not familiar with the new benefits already in place under the health reform law, here’s a short list of some of the biggest changes:

  • Kids with cancer and other serious illnesses can’t be denied health coverage, or dropped by their insurance company.
  • Teens and young adults can stay on their parents’ insurance until they’re 26.
  • Seniors in Medicare don’t have to pay out-of-pocket for physicals, mammograms and other needed tests.
  • Anyone who’s been denied health coverage because of a pre-existing condition can get insurance through a high-risk pool.
  • Small-business owners who insure their workers get significant tax breaks to help cover the cost.

In addition to wholesale repeal, many in Congress have moved to change specific aspects of the law. Some of these changes have bipartisan support, and even President Obama has said he’s willing to change parts of the law if it can be improved.

One widely supported change would stop the extra paperwork needed from small businesses that get tax breaks for insuring workers. The Senate recently passed a bill to end the requirement that business-owners file tax forms for any purchase made over $600. The House is still considering the issue.

Another measure introduced by Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN) would repeal an advisory board with the authority to reduce wasteful Medicare spending.  Experts have supported an independent panel to get costs under control and stop wasteful spending. But Congress is notoriously averse to cutting payments, especially to doctors.

Of course, the final word on the health care law could come from the Supreme Court. Five legal challenges to the law at the district court level have been ruled on to date – with three Democratic-appointed judges upholding the law, and two Republican-appointed judges ruling against it.
Legal experts expect an eventual showdown in 2012 in the Supreme Court, where a swing vote by Justice Kennedy (a Reagan appointee) may be decisive in ultimately deciding the fate of the health law.

In the meantime, Consumers Union will continue working with you to improve implementation of the law so you get affordable access to quality, reliable health care. And we’ll continue to hold insurance companies accountable by working to pass laws in states to require insurance companies publicly justify their rate hikes, and if their rate hikes are excessive, be denied.