Periodically, I google myself. I suggest it. It’s how you find things like this – buried on the 5th page of entries about yourself. This is from the Kansas Health Institute and relates to the listening tour I participated in last Friday.
Listening tour wraps up this week
By Mike Shields
KHI News Service
HUTCHINSON, Aug. 27 — State officials stopped in three cities Friday and will hit three more Tuesday as they wrap up a 20-city tour designed to hear what Kansans would like to see in a health reform plan to be considered by the 2008 Legislature.
Two members of the Kansas Health Policy Authority board and the agency’s executive director Marcia Nielsen were among an agency delegation of seven people that met Friday with groups in Hutchinson, Dodge City and Garden City.
The tour’s last day is Tuesday, starting in Topeka with a meeting with independent insurance agents. Later in the day the listening tour will be in Manhattan were officials will meet with Farm Bureau representatives and then with administrators and board members of the Flint Hills Community Clinic. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is scheduled to take part in that meeting. The tour will wrap up late afternoon in Salina with members of that city’s Chamber of Commerce.
In a conference room of the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund, the health policy authority officials met with a group of about 20 people, many of whom offered personal stories about their problems with health and health insurance.
The first woman to speak burst into tears describing her difficulties after a car accident. She asked that any reform focus on better education for primary care doctors and better coordination among providers when patients rely on more than one.
Others complained about the high cost of health insurance, particularly for small-business employees.
“Health care is going higher, but my paycheck isn’t. We’re kind of stuck,” said Kim Waybright, a young mother who works at the Reno County Historical Society, a small non-profit agency.
“Small business is really suffering,” responded health policy authority executive director Marcia Nielsen. “Somewhere between 260,000 and 300,000 Kansans are uninsured and many, many work for small businesses.”
Waybright said her lower-income friends qualify for more assistance and better medical coverage.
“But there is a middle class that also is suffering,” she said.
“One of the most productive things the state could do is create a simple, standard plan that anyone could get…because we don’t even understand health insurance,” said Patsy Terrell, director of the Mental Health Association of Reno County, complaining of the complications resulting from arcane plan provisions and small print. “We’ve got to have something basic we can understand, that anybody can buy into. It also doesn’t make any sense that health insurance is tied to employment. It’s ridiculous. How many people do you know who are working just to have insurance?”
“The medical bills come from all over the country,” said Mary Hemmings, director of the Fox Theatre, a small Hutchinson non-profit that oversees the historic, renovated moviehouse. Hemming is a breast cancer survivor.
“I got a $1,000 bill for lab work from California,” she said. “I called to see what it was. They said: We can’t tell you over the phone. I’m still paying hundreds and hundreds a month in drug costs.”
Kim Moore, director of the United Methodist Health Ministries Fund, which hosted the meeting, urged changes in the law so that young adults could find affordable insurance or be allowed to stay on their parent’s health plans longer, up to age 25.
He said he had two children who were young adults and a third approaching young adulthood and it had been a problem finding affordable coverage for each of them.
“Our third daughter, we don’t know what we’re going to do,” he said. “I’m tired of this lore that young people don’t want health insurance.”
“Last year, there was a bill to mandate that,” Nielsen said. “And one thing you hear from insurance companies is that would drive up premiums for everyone.”
“Insurance companies say a lot of things that aren’t true,” Terrell responded. “Let’s just be honest about that. The system we have right now makes no logical sense. We need to throw out the system and start over.”
Sharon Hixson, a member of the Kansas Health Institute board of directors, attended that session. She urged attention to prevention and wellness programs.
“I think there have to be built-in incentives for staying healthy,” she said.
She also described a child-care worker who was leaving the business because she couldn’t do without health insurance.
“We have to make sure that not only our children have health care but also child care,’ she said.
The health policy authority officials also met separately with members of the Reno County Farm Bureau.
“I feel like a own a suite at Wesley (hospital) in Wichita,” said Gayla Moeckel, who farms near Plevna, explaining that her daughter had cardiomyopathy and that her late husband had been in a spray plane crash in 1988. “I got one bill for $47,000. I have it framed at home. Instead of buying ground that year, we paid the bill.”
Her husband is now dead and she’s running the farm herself. Her brother who lives outside the area won’t come back to help because he cannot afford to give up the health insurance with the job he’s got.
“I’m still trying to keep the farm going and paying half (the health insurance costs) for the kids working for me,” she said. “I’ve got breast cancer in my family like you would not believe. I do go for an exam once a year, but I can’t afford a colonoscopy because it would not be covered. Not only are we paying more, but we’re getting less for our bucks.”
“How much sense does it make that they won’t pay for a colonoscopy, but will pay for you when you get colon cancer,” Nielsen responded rhetorically.
Our overriding concern is just buying (health insurance) and figuring out how to afford it,” said Brad Harrelson, a lobbyist for Farm Bureau. “Our industry is older and aging. Our demographics are going to skew us to that higher risk” and therefore higher cost insurance.
“Affordability is the biggest factor,” agreed Brad Blank. “My wife works off the farm. Her take-home pay is decreasing because her health care is going up faster than her raises.”
His mother, Sharon Blank, told the officials she was paying $1,650 a month for a health insurance policy that had a $3,000 deductible.
“It really, really hurts me to pay that much,” she said. “I just turned 64 and I can’t wait to turn 65 so I can go on Medicare. I never thought I’d say that.”
“I’m on Medicare. I got no complaint. They pay everything,” said Eldon Bontrager, who was sitting at her elbow.
That prompted Nielsen to ask the farmers what they would think of a state health plan that anyone could buy into, as was suggested by a woman at the earlier listening tour stop.
“You say you don’t want government getting more into health care but then you hear people saying they can’t wait to get Medicare,” she said. “That’s a government program.”
“I don’t know if we as an organization are sophisticated or smart enough to come up with solutions. We would go along with that mantra: No more government. But unfortunately we don’t have any solutions,” Harrelson replied.
“I’m not as convinced its going to be a major reform in the short-term,” said health policy authority board chairman Connie Hubbell, describing the plan likely to be delivered to lawmakers Nov. 1. “It’s going to be incremental. I don’t think we’re up for socialized medicine in Kansas.”
In Dodge City, at the Chamber of Commerce office, the visiting officials from Topeka outnumbered the locals, including House Speaker Melvin Neufeld, a Republican from nearby Ingalls.
“I don’t want anyone to think that we have to pass something this year,” Neufeld told the group. “We don’t want to pass something that helps a few people short term and then turns out to be disastrous long term.”
Most of the conversation at the conference room table focused on prevention and improving unhealthy lifestyles and the difficulties facing small businesses.
“When we talk about the cost of health care, how much of that cost is smokers, the obese? Something should be built in…so that those with riskier lifestyles pay higher premiums,” said Raymond Stroud, CEO of the Credit Union of Dodge City, which has 31 employees.
Stroud said his family is covered through Medi-Share, technically not an insurance company but a mutual aid organization of 50,000 Christians who share medical costs through a program the organization calls “Biblical Healthcare Solutions.”
Stroud said it was a non-denominational program offered through his church. Members must pledge not to drink, smoke or engage in “some other activities,” he said.
There is a $1,000 deductible for each medical event, Stroud said, but the monthly costs of the service are relatively cheap.
“It’s a big pool in Kansas,” Neufeld said, referring to Medi-Share and similar organizations that serve Mennonites and Lutherans and other faiths. “And they count as uninsured.”
Jeff Hiers of Brooke Insurance said the reform should address the problem of too few medical care providers in rural areas.
“There are not enough nurses or doctors,” he said. “We have to tackle helping kids pay for medical school.”
At United Methodist Mexican American Ministries, the Topeka delegation heard from a crowd of about a dozen including dentist Grant Larkin.
“We need a dental school in Kansas,” Larkin said. “Not only are we underserved out here, but the dentists who are here are getting so far booked out that it’s out of control. We’re tired.”
“We’re trying to open a dental clinic but we’ll probably be up against a H-1B waiver cap,” said Penney Schwab, director of United Methodist Mexican American Ministries.
A H-1B visa allows employers to temporarily hire skilled foreigners in specialty occupations. But there are federal limits on the numbers of H-1B visas allowed. So, the new clinic may have trouble finding dentists to man it.
Others said there needed to be more state support for school nurses and that physical education should be required in schools.
-Mike Shields is a staff writer for KHI News Service, which specializes in coverage of health issues facing Kansans. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 785-233-5443, ext. 123.