Medill News Service

Underinsured and powerless: When health insurance fails

Posted in Medill News Service, Print on July 19th, 2010 by Lisa Owad – Be the first to comment

By Lisa Owad
Jan. 19, 2010
Medill News Service

Will Wilson, 56, thought he had good health insurance. The self-employed Chicago graphic designer paid $335 per month for a MEGA Life and Health Insurance policy. “It wasn’t cheap, but I figured it covered what I thought I’d need,” Wilson said. “It would have never crossed my mind had I not had a catastrophic medical condition, because for regular doctors’ visits, it was fine.”

In May 2002, Wilson tested positive for HIV. “The minute that happened, my whole world collapsed.”

Almost immediately, Wilson found that his policy did not cover his medical costs. “About three months down the road, the labs wanted payment,” Wilson said. His insurance company had denied payment. And since his policy only covered generic brand prescriptions, which were not available for HIV treatment, the insurance company denied payment for those as well. “They kept denying everything,” Wilson said

“At first I thought, ‘Wait a second, this is all covered,’” Wilson said. “Was this explained to me? Did I miss this somewhere down the line?”

A year later, Wilson’s medical debt forced him to abandon his policy. “Why am I paying for something I’m not getting anything back for?” he said.

Phil Hildebrand, the president and CEO of MEGA Life and Health Insurance Company, said that it was hard for people to find a balance between paying too much for their monthly premium and getting enough coverage. “Getting caught in the middle is a bad place to be,” Hildebrand said.

Wilson’s story is not an uncommon one. “If you’re buying insurance on your own, you’re kind of screwed,” said Kathleen Duffy, the events and communications organizer at Chicago’s Campaign for Better Health Care, “because you don’t have the purchasing power.”

There are an estimated 25 million adults like Will Wilson who are underinsured, according to a 2008 study released by the Commonwealth Fund, an organization that works to promote better health care. The study describes the underinsured as “people who have health coverage that does not adequately protect them from high medical expenses.”

Duffy defined being underinsured as having insurance that realistically couldn’t be used, like policies with a high deductible. “Who has $10,000 sitting around?”

Wilson started charging everything to his credit card. He traveled to Canada to buy prescriptions at one-third the local cost. Eventually he was forced to take a lower-paying job so that he could qualify for public assistance. “I’m not trying to make anyone responsible for my welfare, just give me a fair chance,” he said.

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Advocates brave the cold for health care reform

Posted in Medill News Service, Print, Video on July 18th, 2010 by Lisa Owad – Be the first to comment

By Lisa Owad and Lauren Sullivan
Jan. 26, 2010
Medill News Service

Supporters of health care reform gathered in downtown Chicago Tuesday to protest the potential scaling back of the health care bill.

MoveOn, a non-profit political action group, organized 160 rallies nationwide to encourage Congress to move forward with a comprehensive health care bill.

A shifting political landscape – due to Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown’s election to the Senate last Tuesday, which cost Democrats their 60-vote Senate supermajority – has left Obama and Democratic leaders scrambling to pass health care reform.

It is unclear how they will move forward, but Obama indicated last Wednesday that a paring of the bill might be necessary to pass any version of health reform.

But not everyone thinks that’s the right approach.

“You can’t piecemeal it,” said Jonathan VanderBrug, justice director for Chicago’s Campaign for Better Health Care—Illinois’ largest health care coalition. “We need full reform – comprehensive reform. A large group of people do not support the bill because it does not go far enough.”

Political analysts expect pieces of the House and Senate bills to be passed incrementally, requiring the support of Republicans who currently oppose the bill.

“It must go back to the drawing board,” said Cadey O’Leary, a member of the Chicago Young Republicans communications committee. “[The bill] must be more deliberate, more bipartisan and more transparent – whether it’s starting over or rendering portions of it.”

Reform advocates, though, are fearful that more compromise would mean the end of any significant overhaul.

“I think the Democrats have been wimps,” said Chris-Ellyn Johanson, who participated in the rally. “I am really disappointed in my party.”

Critics contend that the White House hasn’t done a good job of communicating elements of health care reform to the public – resulting in a drop in national support for reform. According to a Rasmussen report issued Friday, 58 percent of Americans currently oppose the plan before Congress.

“I’m worried that people have become apathetic because no big action has been taken,” Johanson said. “People who are for health reform have given up.”

Obama will reportedly focus on job creation and economic growth in Wednesday’s State of the Union address. Health reform advocates hope that health care is not moved to the back burner.

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Health care workers want county to focus on patient care

Posted in Medill News Service, Print on July 18th, 2010 by Lisa Owad – Be the first to comment

Five candidates running for Cook County Board president debated health issues at a forum Tuesday in downtown Chicago. (L-R): Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown, John Garrido, Alderman Toni Preckwinkle, current President Todd Stroger and Tom Tresser. Candidates Terrence O'Brien and Roger A. Keats did not appear.
Lisa Owad/Medill

By Lisa Owad
Jan. 13, 2010
Medill News Service

A decline in the quality of patient care at Chicago hospitals was a key concern for health care professionals attending a debate featuring candidates for Cook County Board president on Tuesday. The forum, held at Chicago’s First United Methodist Church downtown, was sponsored by the Emergency Network to Save Cook County Health Services, a group formed in 2007.

In October the independent board overseeing Cook County’s health system unveiled a ontroversial plan to roll back inpatient services at Oak Forest Hospital. The plan also would eliminate 700 vacant positions and lay off 300 additional health care workers throughout the county. 

Nurses attending the debate were concerned that the changes, designed to save money, were compromising patient care.

“When you’ve got nurses being cut every day,” said Irene Marks, an advanced practice nurse at Stroger Hospital, “then you are really putting the patient at a disadvantage. That is what’s increasing the long waits and the long lines.”

Martese Chism, also a nurse at Stroger, agreed that the cuts were affecting patient care.

“If you’re sick, you shouldn’t come to a hospital and have to stand in line for 30 hours to receive service.”

“We’re looking for the candidate that’s going to provide the best care and stick to our mission statement as close as possible,” Chism said.

Nurses also are concerned with the relationship between the County Board president and the county’s independent review board.

The candidates at the forum: Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown, John Garrido, Chicago Alderman Toni Preckwinkle, Tom Tresser, and current board President Todd Stroger, generally agreed on the need for the independent review board. Ald. Preckwinkle said that she had pledged to retain the review board, trusting them to be the experts.

“There’s already oversight in place,” she said. “I am not a health care professional.”

Marks disagreed. “I think the president has to have oversight of anybody that they put in place. [Otherwise] you’re saying that you’re just going to take what they say just as gospel,” she said. “Then you’re not doing the oversight that we are actually appointing you to do.”

The primary election for Cook County Board president is on Feb. 2.

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Glaucoma Awareness Month kicks off a year of national health observances

Posted in Medill News Service, Print on July 18th, 2010 by Lisa Owad – Be the first to comment
Lisa Owad/Medill

Beverly Komen undergoes a glaucoma test during Glaucoma Awareness Month. Lisa Owad/Medill

By Lisa Owad
Jan. 12, 2010
Medill News Service

You could be excused for missing National Handwashing Awareness Week in December. It was one of four national health observances vying for your attention in the middle of the hectic holiday season.

Don’t despair. With the start of the new year, you’ll get a lot more reminders of ways to engage in healthy living, including six this month. Scores of organizations have received recognition for their causes on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Health Observance Calendar.

Chicago-based Prevent Blindness America, a nonprofit organization that has been promoting January’s Glaucoma Awareness Month for more than 20 years, describes the awareness campaign as an opportunity to get the word out about the disease.

A bus stop poster encouraging radon testing in downtown Chicago promotes National Radon Action Month. Lisa Owad/Medill

“Our hope is that [the campaign] would encourage someone to go to an eye doctor and get their eyes examined,” said Sarah Hecker, a spokeswoman for Prevent Blindness America. “If there are some new studies or new treatments, we try to make people aware.”

Organizations value inclusion on the federal health awareness calendar for its ability to raise awareness about their causes. While non-profits like Prevent Blindness America don’t have the funds to create a major campaign for a national health observance, this enables them to offer information about disease, as well as help patients to find a doctor or clarify their financial options.

The observances also allow the sponsoring organizations to update their own information. Glaucoma Awareness Month “gives us a chance to make sure all of our material is updated,” Hecker said. All of their informational materials are approved by scientific committees. “We’re the non-profit, they’re the experts,” Hecker said.

During the year, the observances range from National School Breakfast Week to National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. May and October have the most observances, with 42 and 30 events, respectively.

For an observance to be integrated into the National Health Observance Calendar, the event must be sponsored by a national organization recognized by Congress, the White House or the department, according to the health and human services Web site.

National Radon Action Month is another January health observance. The Environmental Protection Agency uses it to encourage families to reduce their risk of lung cancer from the poisonous gas. Promotional activities across the country range from transit posters in Chicago to billboards in Kentucky to a poster contest in New York.

Related Links:
The 2010 National Health Observances Calendar
Information about Prevent Blindness America

January national health observances:
-Cervical Health Awareness Month
-Glaucoma Awareness Month
-National Birth Defects Prevention Month
-National Radon Action Month
-Thyroid Awareness Month
-National Folic Acid Awareness Week (Jan. 4 – 10)

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