MARTINEZ -- For 23-year-old Gino Romiti, Thursday will be a day to celebrate.

Six months after passage of the federal health reform law, major provisions will kick in that supporters say will make it easier for Americans to get and keep health insurance, including young people like Romiti.

Romiti has taken a semester off school and is working at a clothing store in Walnut Creek that does not provide health insurance. He has been on his father's policy, but would have soon lost that coverage because he is not a student.

That will change beginning Thursday, however, when he and other young people can remain on their parents' policies up to age 26.

"Now they know that they can stay on the policy of their families," said Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez. "That's one less tension that they have."

Miller, one of three committee chairmen who helped draft the health care legislation, held a news conference Monday in front of Contra Costa Regional Medical Center in Martinez with Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, to highlight the new provisions they are calling the "patient's bill of rights."

Among the major changes: Insurance companies will no longer be able to cancel policies because someone becomes sick, set lifetime caps on coverage or deny insurance to children with pre-existing conditions.

"These are real protections against insurance company abuses," Miller said. "These protections mean that never again will your insurance run out or be taken away from you when you need it the most."

"Isn't it about time America did this?" asked Garamendi, a former state insurance commissioner. "Insurance companies -- you're going to have to toe the mark."

Miller and Garamendi made their comments as Republican opponents of the legislation are seeking to pick up additional seats in the November election and overturn the health care reforms.

Critics call it too costly and unwieldy, with too many onerous restrictions. Many critics are especially opposed to a mandate that everyone obtain insurance, which will take effect in 2014.

Miller and Garamendi, who were joined by Bill Walker, director of Contra Costa Health Services, vowed Monday to join other supporters in a vigorous battle to keep the measure in place.

"For those people out there that want to see this repealed, understand what you're doing," Garamendi said. "If there's going to be a fight, then let us fight on this issue."

In addition to enabling young people to remain on their parents' policies up to age 26, several other major provisions kick in on Thursday. They will be in effect during the next insurance "open season" for consumers who receive coverage through an employer or the next time a consumer re-enrolls in or purchases a policy from an insurer.

People can go to www.healthcare.gov to learn more.

Under the new rules:

  • Health coverage cannot be arbitrarily canceled when people becomes sick just because they made unintentional mistakes on their paperwork. Insurers will be prohibited from rescinding coverage except in cases involving fraud or intentional misrepresentation of facts.

  • Children can no longer be denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions. This protection applies to all health plans except "grandfathered" plans in the individual market. These protections will be extended to adults starting in 2014.

  • Health plans can no longer put a lifetime limit on health coverage. More than 100 million Americans now have coverage with such limits.

  • Annual limits on coverage will be phased out over three years. Annual limits are less common than lifetime limits -- but 19 percent of individual market plans and 14 percent of small employer plans currently use them. For plan years beginning on September 23, the minimum level for the annual limit will be set at $750,000. This minimum will be raised to $1.25 million in a year and $2 million in two years. In 2014, all annual limits are prohibited.

    The changes are good news for Julie Walters, a Martinez native, whose daughter, Violet, was born two years ago with a rare and life-threatening form of epilepsy because of a gene mutation. The bills for Violet's hospital stays have reached hundreds of thousands of dollars.

    Without the changes in federal law, Walters predicts that Violet would have reached the lifetime limit on health insurance by the time she is 4 years old. She joined Miller and Garamendi in supporting the changes on Monday.

    Reach Sandy Kleffman at 925-943-8249.