Last week, I presented my candidates for the five worst health policy ideas of 2011. Fortunately, the year also saw several positive developments.

To end 2011 on a positive note, here, in reverse order, is my list of the five most important health policy accomplishments.

5.         Expanding the National Health Care Service Corps

This program, created in 1972, provides scholarships and loan repayment awards to medical students who spend time practicing in underserved rural and inner city areas after they graduate. With new funding under the 2009 stimulus bill, the Corps has tripled in size to 10,000 members. While not a substitute for comprehensive health reform, it is a lifeline for millions of Americans who lack reliable access to care. (See blog post of October 28.)

4.         Giving patients direct access to lab results

Thanks to a new federal rule, patients throughout the country can get their medical test results directly from the lab. Up until now, many states, including Pennsylvania, forced them to ask the doctor who ordered the test for the findings. Direct access to lab results can help patients to spot errors and empower them to ask better questions. (See blog post of September 16.)

3.         Making health insurance coverage understandable

Ever try reading your health insurance policy? Good luck understanding it. Even many insurance experts have trouble figuring them out. A provision in the health reform law requires insurance companies to summarize key policy terms on a simple standardized form. The government released a design for the form in August. Clearer information will help us to make better choices. (See blog post of August 26.)

2.         Implementing consumer protections under health reform

Millions of Americans have taken advantage of key health reform protections that first became effective in late 2010. These include adult children who have gone back on their parents' insurance policies, patients with medical bills that would have exceeded coverage limits that no longer apply, and people with individual policies that would have been rescinded when they filed their first claim. For many of these Americans, the new law has already been a lifesaver. (See blog post of December 15.)

1.         Planning for insurance exchanges in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware

All three states in the Philadelphia area have starting planning insurance exchanges to begin operating under health reform in 2014. This will keep them under state, rather than federal, control. The exchanges are our best hope of creating true consumer markets for health insurance in which the uninsured and small businesses can finally find a source of guaranteed coverage.

With these developments, 2011 wasn't a bad year for health policy. Let's hope 2012 brings more accomplishments to cheer about.

Of course, the Supreme Court's expected ruling on health reform will have a lot do with that.

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