Residents testify: Insurance cos. are blocking our health care
Larry Thompson
July/August 2006

"Our health insurance system is sick."
"I'm stuck between menopause and Medicare."
"Luckily my doctor is only a day's drive away."
"I'm going to North Africa to get all the free health care I can get."
"This system is obscene."
"My drugs are much cheaper in Canada."

These were just a few of the many strong statements made by the testifiers at the Citizens' Congressional Health Care Hearing in Gainesville, Florida. More than 200 people crowded into the Thelma Boltin Center on Saturday, July 8, 2006 to listen and to testify. The event was organized by the Alachua County Labor Party and a coalition of groups.

Over fifty people gave personal testimony stating their dissatisfaction with our current health care system. Testimony after testimony identified the root cause of our health care crisis: The insurance companies.

The Problem Is Not Just the Uninsured
One thing was clear from the testimony: our current patchwork system of job-based insurance isn't working well for anyone. The insured or the uninsured, people working full-time, part-time, looking for work, or who have retired.

Ash Duke stated that to stay on his current Blue Cross/Blue Shield plan he can't earn more than $200 a month and cannot get married. If he left his current plan he would have pre-existing conditions and would not get the coverage he needs to treat his cystic fibrosis.

At the end of his testimony Duke echoed both the frustration and hope that many people talked about: "I'm stuck. I want to work. . . and move forward in life, and I feel with a national health care policy I'd have the freedom to choose whatever job or career I wanted without worrying about whether the benefits were enough to keep me alive."

Dorothy Bartlett testified about the insurance company AvMed deciding what medications she could have for an illness. The drugs AvMed prescribed did not work and her daughter got her the medications that solved her problem because she was lucky enough to work in a doctor's office.

Sherri Scott had to re-mortgage her home to pay high medical bills even though she had insurance. Steckley Lee testified that her parents, who had been married more than 30 years, got divorced so that her ill father would be eligible for Medicaid. Families spoke of holding fundraisers to help pay bills rather than spending time caring for their loved ones.

Testifiers spoke out against the insurance companies denying care, making outrageous profits, giving huge salaries to CEO's, excluding 'pre-existing conditions' and telling our doctors what medications and therapies we can receive.

Dr. Chad Hood, of the Labor Party and Physicians For A National Health Program, stated "the insurance companies are practicing medicine without a license" to loud applause.

The uninsured spoke of the inability to get medical treatment or to even buy insurance due to pre-existing conditions or the exorbitant fees charged by the companies. There were charges of profit mongering, putting money over people and other unsavory acts of the insurance companies.

Pam Vetro recalled trying to get care for her patients: "I'm a licensed school psychologist. . . Insurance companies routinely deny claims from my clients [even though their treatments are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act]. When they do reimburse for services they make it extremely difficult. The claims must be submitted and resubmitted. There's always something."

"Three years ago I called an insurance company on behalf of a child with autism. I attempted to get pre-approval for diagnostic services. When I told the agent the child was autistic, the agent laughed out loud and said to me, 'Autism? We would NEVER cover that. That's chronic.' Then she whispered into the phone, 'Say the boy has an anxiety disorder. We cover anxiety. If he's autistic he MUST have some anxiety.' I didn't lie because I'm not a liar."

"The insurance companies do everything they can to avoid paying claims. They make it hard, they make it frustrating and time consuming. And they really hope that we will really just go away."

Michelle Gifford recalled her family's journey into debt: "In 1996 I became sick and lost my job as faculty at the College of Medicine and College of Nursing ... I kept my insurance through COBRA, but my premium tripled instantly. When it ran out I was able to purchase an individual policy through Blue Cross/Blue Shield but of course the premiums were astronomical. After a couple of years it was $6,000 a year just for the premium and of course there was a huge deductible and huge co-pays."

After she went back to work, Gifford's husband, a doctor, got sick and eventually developed dementia. "Out of pocket, we had year after year after year $15-20,000 [in medical expenses]. With huge expenses year after year, even a doctor's retirement investments disappear. About 2 years ago we ran out of those investments and had nothing. We had just his Social Security, which was about $550 a month. That doesn't even cover food, and house and utilities. So I was forced to put everything onto credit cards. After 30-plus years of never having a loan, never having a mortgage. After 2 years we had $40,000 in debt. A huge part of it was medical expenses."

Lindsay Newman told how she was laid off from her job and went on COBRA for as long as she could. When she started her new job they didn't have a group plan so she tried to get an individual policy but was denied because of preexisting conditions. She was recently diagnosed with cancer.

"I had to liquidate all my savings to qualify for Medicaid. I had accrued a lot of bills [while waiting to get on Medicaid] just because of having a little bit too much in assets, which weren't anything that would get me very far in retirement. [After getting on Medicaid] there were a number of months I went with out essential medications [while trying to prove I was still eligible for Medicaid] including an anti-cancer medication that I needed."

"Just this year qualified for Medicare finally. . . and because I needed a prescription plan I went with Humana. When I went into a Humana provider who checked with Humana [about my treatment for Lymphodema] and were told that my co-pay would be $75 a session. The prescribed treatment is 5 sessions a week for two weeks. I did the math and am thinking 'how am I going to come up with $750, which is close to all I get from disability'?

"There are medicines, because of the co-pays that exist, that I have simply opted not to take, [because of the costs] I've had to choose which medications are the most essential to keep me living and breathing."

Debbie Arnason, of Fort White, said: "I used to live in Naples. I stayed in my last job in Naples, basically for the [insurance] benefits. [After leaving the job because of a hand injury] I went ahead with the COBRA instead of getting a catastrophic plan for $90 a month. . . After getting physical therapy I really felt forced to stay on the COBRA because I really felt terrified because I didn't know if I'd need surgery or not. It's been about a year now and I [started off] paying $480 a month for COBRA. Then $509 a month. And now we're up to $529 a month and it's really hard when you're not working to come up with this money."

"The health care insurance in this country is sick," Arnason said. "That's all I can say about it. It prevents you getting actual health care."

Costs were a constant theme preventing people from getting care. Burtha Whittenberg testified: "I'm retired and my husband's retired. Both of us are heart patients. Our insurance has gone up. Medications have gone up. What are you going to do when you're only on your Social Security of $600 for me and just a little bit more for my husband? And you cannot live on that. Why do they want to go up so high on the medication and the insurance?"

In written testimony, Dan Harmeling, a teacher and former president of the Levy County Education Association, recalled a Blue Cross/Blue Shield representative telling him at a union meeting to keep costs down by 'not telling' retirees that they could continue on the Blue Cross plan. According to Harmeling, the insurance agent said, "To really help your rates you need to keep your retirees from enrolling in your plan. Don't go out of your way to have the continue coverage when they retire because of course they tend to have more claims as they get older." When Harmeling objected, the Blue Cross representative said, "But it will help your rates."

Many expressed relief at government-run programs that step in to provide assistance where privately funded insurance fails us. There was unhappiness with these Band-Aid solutions as the programs have eligibility determinations, do not include everyone, require paperwork, co-pays, are underfunded and do not meet all our needs. Most expressed a desire for a healthcare program that includes everyone with no exclusions which would include dental and vision and be affordable for all of us. Many speakers urged Congress to pass H.R. 676, the National Health Insurance Act. H.R. 676 would cover everyone and would eliminate the role of insurance companies and HMOs.

Where Was Rep. Cliff Stearns?
Citizen testimony was received by representatives from Rep. Corrine Brown's office and Sen. Bill Nelson's office and local elected officials. Rep. Corrine Brown is one of 72 co-sponsors of H.R. 676 in addition to Rep. John Conyers.

Noticeably absent was anyone from Rep. Cliff Stearns' office. After we received a written reply that Rep. Stearns had a "scheduling conflict," Labor Party member Julie Penrod Glenn made it her personal mission to get Stearns to at least send a representative in his place to hear his constituents speak out about their health care experiences. Penrod-Glenn contacted his offices in Gainesville, Ocala and Washington DC no fewer than six times about attending-all to no avail.

It's perhaps not surprising that Stearns wouldn't show his face as he and his aides have responded to local citizens' concerns about health care and calls to sign onto H.R. 676 with comments like "don't worry [about health care costs]" and "Rep. Stearns doesn't have to sign onto any health care legislation."

Building a Movement
After hearing everyone speak and the comments and applause in the over-crowded room it was clearly evident that people want our elected officials to pass H.R. 676, a bill that would eliminate the huge profits, paper work and waste that insurance companies create and the devastation and worry that they dump into our lives. Almost half of those attending stated they want to get involved and work to win H.R.676. They're certainly not alone.

Over 155 unions, 28 Central Labor Councils, including the North Central Florida (Alachua and 17 surrounding counties) and the North Florida (Duval and surrounding counties) Central Labor Councils, and numerous local governments, including Alachua County, have endorsed H.R. 676.

The hearing--which was one of more than 80 being held across the country over the last year--was sponsored by the Alachua County Labor Party, Alachua County NAACP; Central Labor Council of North Central Florida (AFL-CIO); Gainesville Area National Organization for Women; Graduate Assistants United (GAU); American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 2779; Physicians for a National Health Plan; Alachua County Commission; United Faculty of Florida; Gainesville Women's Liberation, and Healthcare-NOW.

When asked several days later what he got out of the July 8 hearings, Ash Duke replied "I thought I was alone. That I was the only one dealing with these problems. I was surprised to hear that so many other people were in the same boat." Duke was also shocked to hear others testify about their positive experiences with universal health care systems in other countries such as Canada, Tunisia and Scotland.

His statement about thinking he was alone was echoed by Michelle Gifford, who as a medical provider testified to having thought of the problem as "us versus them, the insured versus the uninsured." She talked about how she changed her thinking about this after racking up over $40,000 in credit card debt-despite being insured. Gifford concluded "Our [health care] system isn't really a system, it's a non-system."

To get involved in this fight to win H.R. 676, call the Alachua County Labor Party at 352-375-2832.

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