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First stage of health care overhaul begins

WASHINGTON - The first stage of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul is expected to provide coverage to about 1 million uninsured Americans by next year, according to government estimates.

That's a small share of the uninsured, but in a shaky economy, experts say it's notable.

Many others - more than 100 million people - are getting new benefits that improve their existing coverage.

Overall costs appear modest at this point, split among taxpayers, employers and individuals who directly benefit, although the biggest part of the health care expansion is still four years away.

Now, a clearer picture of the new plan is starting to emerge from the patchwork of news releases.

In 2014, government tax credits will help uninsured workers and their families pay premiums, and Medicaid will take in many more low-income people. Eventually, more than 30 million will gain coverage, sharply reducing the number of uninsured.

"We've seen increasing numbers of people losing their health insurance, particularly in this recession," said Sara Collins, vice president of the Commonwealth Fund, a New York-based health research clearinghouse. "Providing this early relief will help people who are particularly affected by the downturn." Collins reviewed coverage estimates in federal regulations for The Associated Press.

Among the beneficiaries will be many people locked out of insurance because of medical problems.

The Raether family of suburban Milwaukee will gain from two of the changes: Elimination of lifetime coverage limits and a ban on insurers turning away children in poor health.

Mira Raether, 4, who was born prematurely and has kidney problems, exhausted the lifetime limit on her parents' policy earlier this year.

She now has temporary Medicare coverage because of a kidney transplant, but her parents were worried about what would happen when they have to get her back on private insurance.

"A huge weight has been lifted," said Sheryl Raether, the mother. "She has ongoing health care needs, and I was afraid she'd hit another lifetime limit."

Medicare not only covers seniors, but people of any age with permanent kidney failure.

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