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Ritva Curley, pre-existing condition, Ventura, California
Ritva Curley came to the United States from her native Finland more than three decades ago, and she can't be blamed if she occasionally wishes she were back there, at least insofar as the medical treatment she receives.

Finland, like most industrial countries, has a form of socialized medicine. To people in Ritva's fix, it looks good by comparison.

Ritva, who lives in Ventura, has been trying for years to get back on a regular individual PPO conversion plan through Blue Cross. The insurer has regularly rebuffed her, and she remains instead on the HIPPA PPO, administered by Blue Cross, with its steadily increasing premiums.

She is at her wit's end. "I can't win with them," she says.

She knows she is not alone. "I have several friends who can't get insurance. One has a heart condition, and he's not insured. If something happens to him he'll have to sell his home."

Health care woes are a comparatively new development for Ritva, who came to the U.S. in 1968 with her husband. He did underwater work - exploration, pipelines and the like - for Brown and Root. "Being young and healthy, everything was fine. Health care wasn't that big of a problem."

They raised a son. Later, they divorced, and Ritva went to a software Internet company, where she had coverage through Blue Cross. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996 but it was caught early and arrested, with Great West Insurance Company paying the bills for this condition. The company changed to Blue Cross coverage in 1997.

In 1998, Ritva became self-employed as a financial consultant, working with the elderly, court-appointed guardianships and the like. She went on COBRA for 18 months, then tried to get back on the Blue Cross individual conversion plan.

Blue Cross refused, because of the cancer, even though Ritva says it is no longer an issue. Blue Cross then began finding all manner of other reasons to reject her membership in the conversion plan. She had developed Barr-Epstein during her three years in the tropics decades ago, for example, and they invoked that as grounds for refusal. The treatment for cancer destroyed her thyroid, and that, too, became a reason.

"Blue Cross is picking up on every little thing. It's very, very aggravating. According to Blue Cross I should be dead. They're saying I'm probably going to croak. I will be (dead) from stress soon, from paying such horrendous premiums."

Those premiums have shot up from $198 when Ritva was on COBRA to $594 and then to $728 in January of this year. "The premiums just kept going up each year," Ritva says. "When I was working, my share was $34 a month."

The stress is both financial and physiological. When Ritva pays her premium, "it has to come off the top of everything else." The situation is aggravating her hypertension.

"I've reached the point where I go off or go broke," she says. But she realizes that she can't do that, because she's not likely to get on any other plan. "The only saving grace is that they can't cancel me from HIPPA."

Ritva has had ample pause as she seeks medical justice here to reflect on Finland and Europe. "Everybody bemoans the high taxes there, but at least you know you're not going to die in the street," she says.

Under socialized medicine, "everyone would be covered." A great deal of emphasis is placed on preventive medicine. Pre-natal care is covered in the Scandinavian countries.

Prescription drugs are cheaper as well, and Ritva imports her Zyrtec, an allergy drug, from Finland at a much more reasonable price than Americans pay. Only $14.79 for 30 pills in Finland - a price that includes air mail shipping - it would cost $61.29 here. Lipitor is one-third the cost there.

She believes the big drug companies are behind much of the increased cost of health care in the United States. "It's just criminal."

Ritva would like to see a citizen board that would force health care insures to justify their increases. Beyond that, she would like to see universal health care take root in the United States.