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Getting Personal

Health care debate is urgent for Contact Center

By Matthew Cunningham · September 2nd, 2009 · News

For staffers and volunteers at the Contact Center, advocating for issues to help improve the lives of low-income people and the working poor is nothing new.

The non-profit community-organizing agency lately has been focusing its efforts on health care reform. Some of the organization’s volunteers pay regular visits to area legislators; others tour strategic sections of the state to spread the word about House Resolution 3200, the health care reform bill under consideration in Congress. Still others organize informational events around the city to raise awareness, complete with weathered posters imploring drivers to “honk for health care reform.”

But the health care reform debate is more than a typical campaign for the people associated with the Over-the-Rhine organization.

“Right now, we’re uninsured,” says staff member Lynn Williams. “We’re actually advocating for ourselves.”

The Contact Center’s two full-time employees, Williams and Cassandra Burnham, used to have coverage — at a cost of $450 per person, per month. At non-profit salaries, that was a significant burden.

“(The Contact Center) doesn’t get that much money, and much of it’s restricted,” Burnham says. “It was hard enough paying that.”

Burnham, a 15-year employee, has a sobering complication to her story. She was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer in 2007. Although it was caught early enough to be treated with surgery, her uninsured status means she hasn’t been able to follow the surgery with a suggested five years of medication therapy. Her only therapy since the surgery has simply been to work hard and hope for the best, she says.

“If I worried about it the way most people worry about it, I wouldn’t be here now,” Burnham says while sitting in the Contact Center’s Vine Street office. “I really feel bad I’m not getting the help I need.”

To make a change, the employees have rallied a group of locals who, like them, face medical challenges due to lack of insurance or coverage that doesn’t provide for their needs. Cincinnati resident Judy Mendriski, whose chronic ailments confine her to a motorized chair, said she’s involved because of the changes she’s seen in public health care.

“Being on the system since 1994, everything has gone down,” she says.

Cincinnati resident and 19-year cancer survivor Memory “Mem” Royal agreed. She explained how her declining coverage only pays for nine pain pills a month — about three to four days’ reprieve from the intense migraines she suffers.

“I suffer real bad, I ache,” she says. “Somewhere down the line, they shouldn’t make us suffer.”

Volunteer Will Wallace said education and correcting the sea of misinformation is the motivator that sends him to area legislators’ offices on a regular basis. The misleading sound bites and spin sent out by reform opponents is widespread and concerning, he says. Wallace recalled a woman who approached him during one of the Contact Center’s “honk for health care” events.

“She said at her church, the seniors were in an uproar because they thought Obama’s plan is for seniors to die,” he says.

“It’s madness,” adds Williams, who recalls seeing plan opponents superimposing the president’s face on Nazi posters. “We never attacked President Bush that way when we were protesting the war.”

Statistics indicate there are 47 million people who are uninsured in the United States, a number that’s expected to rise in coming years. Even those who are fortunate enough to have health insurance coverage through their employers, however, have seen their coverage shrink while their premiums skyrocket.

During the past decade, employer-sponsored health insurance premiums have increased 119 percent, according to the National Coalition on Health Care. The average cost for workers in the same period has jumped from $1,543 to $3,354.

In fact, the cumulative increase in employer-sponsored health insurance premiums have increased at four times the inflation rate during the past decade, the coalition notes.

A study by McKinsey & Co., a global management consulting firm, found that of the $2.1 trillion the United States spent on health care in 2006, about $650 billion was above what the nation should’ve been expected to spend based on the level of U.S. wealth compared to other nations. The additional cost was attributable to $436 billion for outpatient care, and another $186 billion related to high administrative costs.

In fact, most other industrialized democracies use some type of publicly managed health care system as opposed to the United States’ private, market-driven system. In virtually every instance, overall costs are cheaper while patient outcomes are better.

As Congress continues its debate over health care reform, Republicans and some Democrats are pushing to delete the so-called “public option” part of the health care plan that’s emerging. The option involves the creation of a government-sponsored insurance plan to compete with private insurance providers.

Supporters say the public portion is important because it would provide a fall-back for people who private companies won’t insure. Also, it would use economies of scale to negotiate lower prices from physicians and drug companies, providing an incentive for private plans to do likewise.

Talk of health care reform’s cost makes Williams flustered. Her voice grows passionate as she talks about comparing the cost to the money spent on the Iraq War.

“What gets me the most is how politicians moan and groan about health care that could save lives, when they say nothing about the $10 billion a month for the Iraq War to take lives. Do we care about human life?”

Beyond the emotion, the advocates at the Contact Center are optimistic about health care reform and their ability to make a mark on the debate.

“As long as you get enough of one party (in power),” Williams says. “That’s what’s exciting — it could actually happen.”

“I feel what we do makes a difference,” says Burnham. She noted that, despite the struggles she and Williams face as part of the working uninsured, there is an advantage to being in that situation when acting for change in the healthcare system.

“We’re putting a face and body to what is happening.”



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