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Consensus Commentary


Apr 28, 2004

Another Predator for Governor to Terminate
The Antelope Valley Press

by Robert Cuddy

Some folks are all aflutter at the political biceps being flexed by our governor as he travels up and down the state pressuring legislators to rubber stamp his every proposal, and threatening serious electoral consequences if they don't knuckle under.

But lawmakers are wimps compared to other evil forces lurching through California's political forest. If Gov. Schwarzenegger wants to really take on a predator-like foe, he should muscle up against the state's health care delivery system.

I bring this up because I am still reeling from my annual notice from Kaiser Permanente announcing my premium increase for 2004. Kaiser mailed these notices in December. I should have simply shredded the thing when I read "Merry Christmas, Chump" on the envelope, but I peeled it open anyway.

I knew the news would be bad, but I didn't expect this bad: a 42 percent jump beginning Jan. 1, from $345 to $490. Last year it was 44 percent. It's more than doubled in two years. Corollary services like co-pays and hospital visits also are up.

Kaiser later ratcheted back the increases somewhat, no doubt affrighted by the collective roar of outrage from its members.

Nevertheless, health insurance fees are suffocating, and not only to me: millions of Californians are being smothered by HMO costs.

Schwarzenegger seems unaware of the immensity of the health care delivery problem, let alone motivated to do anything about it.

Here's my story, one of many:

I left a full-time job in March of 2002, extending my Kaiser health care coverage through COBRA. After six months, COBRA's premium jumped, so I looked for a Kaiser plan I could afford. The least expensive left me with no dental, vision or prescription coverage, and a $20 co-pay for doctors' visits.

It wasn't great, but at $239 a month it was all I could handle. I signed on, beginning Oct. 1, 2002. I figured if I was careful I could avoid the dentist and the optometrist. I began to brush and floss my teeth with a new vigor, and stocked up on carrots.

Imagine my surprise when I received a letter in December of that year telling me my premium would rise to $345 a month on Jan. 1, 2003.

My costs had jumped for two reasons. The first: I had reached a certain age (he said coyly) in 2002.

Kaiser's minions had neglected to mention this age problem to me when I signed up for their plan in September, even though my birthday was in July.

It probably slipped their minds.

The second reason was a cost-of-living increase.

So, like most Californians, I was paying more money for less coverage, and locked in because I worked for myself and not a large employer. I couldn't go elsewhere because I have that most dreaded of maladies, a pre-existing condition. HMOs will grudgingly take on people who have pre-existing conditions, but they require the first-born child as collateral.

The only people older than 40 who don't have pre-existing conditions, by the way, are those who were cryogenically frozen at the age of 35.

The situation, for thousands of us, is perilous, and affects all health care decisions. We won't go to the doctor unless we absolutely must. We have expunged the phrase "preventive medicine' from our lexicon unless by preventive you mean don't get sick. Our anxiety level has jumped (We could see a Kaiser shrink, but the co-pay is now $25 a visit; better to bite our nails.)

I have interviewed other victims of the health insurance industry. Most betrayed and jerked around. Many are in far worse straits.

The inescapable conclusion: The health care delivery system in California is putrid and decayed. It is sucking the life out of patients. It needs a strong leader to fix it. That, or a muscular Legislature working with dynamic models to create consumer-friendly laws.

Solutions do exist. In a new report, "Crisis and Opportunity: Forging a Universal Health Care Consensus," the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights sets forth three model cost-control laws and a model ballot initiative. The laws address the immediate crisis: affordability. The group proposes bulk purchasing of prescription drugs, regulating health insurer premiums, and stabilizing hospital markets. Readers can download the report, which also includes patients' stories, at http://CalHealthConsensus.org

Perhaps the governor, instead of breaking bread with insurers, could take a look at it. He would learn about the real suffering the people of California are enduring. Let him "terminate" that.

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California free-lance writer Bob Cuddy is an award-winning former Editorial Page Editor of the Alameda Newspaper Group. He served on the editorial board of Contra Costa Newspapers.