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Thursday, May 21,2009

Insure us all

by Liz Reyna
Dave Wamsley had no choice but to keep his costly health insurance. In remission from stage four Lymphoma and having suffered a heart attack from his chemotherapy regimen, Wamsley said he couldn’t leave his plan even if he wanted. His wife and son were forced to leave his plan because it was not affordable. They took on a separate plan with higher co-pay, Wamsley said, which the family could not afford to use.

Wamsley’s story is common in Michigan because of its highly concentrated health insurance market and inflated premiums for patients and employers, a health insurance policy group says.

Representatives from Health Care for America Now, a national campaign of more than 850 health care organizations, spoke at the United Methodist Church in Lansing on Wednesday to propose an accessible and affordable public insurance plan that would increase competition in Michigan’s private insurance market.

The group presented a report that found that in the Lansing-East Lansing area, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and United Health Group represent 95 percent of the region's insurance market.

In Michigan, the two groups, along with the Henry Ford Health System, dominate 73 percent of the state’s health insurance market, HCAN said.

"By having a real competitive market, we're going to force the current players in the private insurance sector in Michigan to compete for customers, lower their costs, reduce salaries and become much more efficient as an entity," John Freeman, Michigan director of the group, said.

The public health plan would not replace Medicaid, Medicare or private insurance plans but compete with them. It would be universally accessible and affordable.

The money for the program, which would be created by the federal government, would not come from taxpayer dollars. Instead individuals and businesses would pay a more affordable cost for the plan.

Freeman said the situation of the market and the 47 million Americans without health insurance has happened for several distinct reasons.

The report details that premiums grew 17 times faster than wages from 2000 to 2007.

Freeman also said inflated salaries, anti-competitive behavior and merging among insurance companies — more than 400 in the past 13 years — are making payments out of reach for most people.

Erin Knott, assistant director for Michigan Citizen Action, said patients are suffering as a result.

“Insurance companies and providers are merging and joining forces, growing bigger by the day, while the choices for patients shrink,” Knott said.

Using Medicaid as an example — though without the strain of meeting financial criteria — patients would have the ability to choose from a public health care plan with allotted benefits or the added benefits of private insurance.

Marge Faville, president of SEIU Healthcare Michigan, said the two plans would improve the market.

“Do I think this is going to break the system?” Faville said. “No it’s going to make the system competitive just like any industry throughout the United States. If you put competitiveness in there it’s going to lower prices, you’ll get quality care and it’s going to be affordable.”

Faville, who sees the effects of patients without insurance, said something must be done so that uninsured patients do not further suffer.

“We’re at the bedside everyday,” Faville said. “We know what happens when people cannot afford health insurance. We see that they wait too long to come to the hospital and it’s something that can be prevented.”

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