As Congress debated details of national health care reform, a group of local residents met in a Larchmont home to discuss their own objections to the current system and to learn more from a health care policy expert. Like others gathering in grassroots groups across the country, some at the meeting were also looking to spur action at the federal level.
Kate Kelly opened the gathering in her home on June 2 and voiced support for reform: “It’s the right thing to do.” Of particular concern to her is the plight of people excluded from insurance plans because of chronic illness, like her young adult daughter who needs special care for lupus. After a tremendous struggle, her daughter found insurance where she lives in California, but she would face a new battle for coverage should she move to another state. Another motivation to press for expanded coverage, said Ms. Kelly, was the terrifying prospect of a pandemic outspread of disease while 47 million Americans lack health care insurance.
Nancy White, co-host of the meeting, asked why she must spend so much for her health insurance. “Health care should be a right, not a privilege,” she asserted.
Dr. Betsy Rosenthal, a Larchmont resident and dermatologist in practice for 35 years, asked, “Why isn’t health care a human right here, as it is in so many other countries of the world?”
Westchester County Legislator Judy Myers, a Larchmont resident, pondered, “Why isn’t universal health insurance required? We require all drivers to have car insurance.”
Tim Foley, health care policy coordinator for NYC for Change, helped the group understand current conditions and outlined principal obstacles to “changing the game.” He also outlined what Congressional health legislation may entail.
Why the current urgency for change? Mr. Foley noted:
- Over the past decade, health insurance premiums have increased 400% while medical debt accounts for 50% of all personal bankruptcies;
- Health care consumes 16% of our GNP, and health care costs are increasing at an untenable three times the rate of inflation; and
- 18,000 deaths per year occur among the uninsured.
“We have the most expensive health care system in the world, but not the best quality one,” he lamented. But, conditions seem more favorable to change than ever, given the large number of Congressional leaders admitting a need for improvement and a president, public, and labor unions mobilized for reform.
What Plans Are Likely?
Mr. Foley speculated that Congress will come up with some kind of “consensus” plan. Consumers could stay with current health insurance plans they like. Or they could find better coverage through a national health exchange portal to various private health insurance plans that would provide the same medical, dental and eye care benefits that Congressional representatives enjoy, without penalties or exclusions for chronic illness. A third option lies in a public health insurance system, administered by the federal government, that would offer reduced cost through negotiated prices for medicines, streamlined administration, restrictions on excessive medical procedures, and more preventive treatment.
What Are the Obstacles to Change?
Some listening to Mr. Foley voiced passionate support for federally managed national health insurance. Others asked what it would take to effectively overhaul the existing system and how expanded health care could be funded
Mr. Foley and some other participants noted that with net profits and CEO bonuses in private health insurance and pharmaceutical companies soaring, there’s a lot at stake. Expansion of benefits and the introduction of a public health insurance system could eat away at both corporate profits and jobs, particularly those devoted to administering claims and marketing insurance policies and pharmaceuticals. Negative ads and campaigns are already in gear to discredit reform.
The high stakes of change are also of concern to many consumers who enjoy good health and are comfortable with their existing health insurance. For them, ‘changing the game’ without knowing outcomes in advance, can be scary.
This phenomenon mystifies Dr. Rosenthal. “Don’t people understand that our ‘free market’ system offers limited choices? How free are consumers of HMO services to see the doctor of their choice?” she asked. And what happens when a medical crisis exhausts insurance benefits? “Then you’re on the road to bankruptcy,” she said.
Dr. Rosenthal said she has watched the quality and quantity of her medical practice in Mamaroneck decline as a result of arbitrary and obstructive private insurance rules. “Profit has no place in health care,” she said. “Take away the profit, and you’ll see the costs drop dramatically.”
Larchmont Gathering Follows Town Hall Meeting
Ms. Kelly invited people to her home after speaking at a Town Hall meeting in Greenburgh on May 14 organized by the Westchester Health Care Reform Task Force. At that event, voters and legislators from across the County discussed problems with access, cost and quality of care.
County Legislator Judy Myers declared that “Washington must move quickly to pass comprehensive health reform this year in order to control rising health care costs, guarantee choice of doctor, and assure high-quality, affordable health care for all Americans.”
NYS Assemblyman George Latimer explained, “Let me remind you that entitlements like K-12 education and education for girls, that we take for granted, were not a ‘given.’ They came after battles were won. We have to find ways to make Congress do the necessary restructuring for fulfilling its commitment to serve the people of this country.”
These views were echoed by other officials who stressed the importance of voters pressing Congress to act on creating a more equitable, inclusive and efficient health care system.
Kate Kelly and others involved in organizing the Larchmont meeting took up the challenge to “do something” to support change by first educating themselves and by then helping their neighbors to do so as well.