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Uninsured press their case in health care debate

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January 23, 2001
Web posted at: 1:59 p.m. EST (1859 GMT)

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Melinda Jarvis works for a promising dot-com. But after discovering a lump in her breast she's not so sure about her future. She can't afford to get it checked out.

Susan and Robert Druss can afford a house, a car, nice toys for their son and a private business -- but not regular medical checkups.

Estelle Myers cares for newborns, moving in with new moms and dads to make sure colic and other baby woes don't get serious. But when she checked herself into a Queens hospital in need of a colonoscopy, she was on her own.

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Each has a very different story, but all share the same plight -- they are just a few of the estimated 43 million people in the United States living without health insurance.

Stories like theirs became fodder during the presidential race, providing dramatic evidence that government's inability to come up with solutions to the health insurance crisis has real-life victims.

"Eighty percent of them come from working families, 10 million of them are children," said Steven A. Schroeder, President and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. "They're in great need of health care, and it's a moral shame that our country, as prosperous as it is, hasn't seen fit to provide basic health insurance for everyone."

To keep the debate alive now that the presidential race is over, the foundation recently sponsored a forum in New York called Health Coverage 2001, bringing together rivals such as health activists, insurance industry representatives, doctors and union leaders. The participants said they hoped to generate proposals for bringing health insurance to more people.

But the uninsured, who came from many hours away to testify at the New York event, provided the most compelling testimony.

John and Vicki Marble clutched photos of their two boys as they spoke of watching the most innocent childhood accidents turn into health care nightmares. Neither his manufacturing job nor her job as a bus driver provides insurance and they don't have enough left over each month to buy insurance on the open market.

Vicki Marble worried what she would do if her husband became ill and couldn't provide for the family. "I'm afraid that some day I'm going to wake up and my husband is going to be deathly ill. Maybe we'll find something wrong, something critical, leukemia, something, and we can't do anything about it," Marble said. "Then what will happen?"

Estelle Myers works when her agency refers her to a newborn, but the part-time assignments provide no insurance. And, when there is no child to care for, she has no income at all.

"I try not to get sick. I rely on my vitamins. I try to eat healthy," she said. "That's about it. And I pray to God."

Chip Kahn, president of the Health Insurance Association of America, said the private healthcare system provides insurance to more than 180 million Americans, mostly through employers.

"We would like to see all Americans covered by health insurance, but to get low-income Americans covered particularly, we're going to have to have action, some kind of help for them to pay the premiums," he said. "We can provide coverage but we can't mint money."

More than half of the uninsured live on incomes below 200 percent of the poverty line, or about $28,000 a year for a family of three, just enough to put high premiums out of reach but not low enough for them to qualify for government assistance.

During the presidential campaign, President George W. Bush proposed spending $132 billion over 10 years to help people purchase private health insurance. (Bush's plan can be found at http://www.bush2000.com/issues/index.html). Bush wants to provide a $2,000 refundable health care credit and allow small businesses to buy insurance through associations.

Schroeder of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found hope in that proposal.

"The fear would be that the issue goes underground, but I don't think that's going to happen because it's such a fundamental issue and so many people are at risk and this is a window in time now," he said. "We have a new president, we have a divided Congress, they're looking for a bipartisan issue. I think we can make progress in covering more people than are covered now, so I'm optimistic."



RELATED STORIES:
Physicians' group calls for universal health coverage
January 12, 2001
Effort under way to let states keep unspent funds for uninsured children
September 30, 2000
Health insurance costs continue to climb
September 7, 2000
Choosing the right health-care insurance for you
November 10, 1999

RELATED SITES:
Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation
Families USA
American Nurses Association
American Hospital Association
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