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Senators Hear of Hardships Caused by Rising Health Care Costs

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ray Ross said he recently broke a thumb playing basketball and ended up owing $3,128.30 to his health insurer, which refused to pay the full medical bill of $9,776.30.

Connie Wells said she and her husband spent their life savings--and then sold the family farm to qualify for Medicaid--because their three young children suffer from severe illnesses.

Similar tales were abundant Monday at a Senate hearing on the need to reform the nation’s health care system.

The experiences of Ross, the Wells and others were not lost on Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) and three other Democratic senators who kicked off a weeklong series of public hearings here Monday. The hearings, which will also take place in four other cities, are intended to highlight an issue that the senators say has been virtually ignored by the Bush Administration.

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“Through these hearings, we hope to develop a consensus that will enable us to move forward on--and pass--a comprehensive health care reform in next year’s Congress,” Mitchell said.

The Maine senator is the author of a health care reform bill that would require employers to offer workers health insurance or pay a special tax that would be used by the government to buy insurance for those who cannot get employment-based coverage.

The other senators participating Monday were Bob Graham of Florida, Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania and John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV of West Virginia.

Today’s hearing will be in Atlanta, to be followed by sessions in Cleveland, Detroit and Denver. Each hearing is to focus on a particular issue. Monday’s session at the University of Tampa emphasized skyrocketing premiums that increasingly are pricing people out of the insurance market.

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Among those who testified was Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, who urged his former Senate colleagues to act speedily. “We can’t wait on what has been an unwilling partner in the past,” Chiles said of the federal government.

Chiles said that he plans to introduce a universal health care bill in the next session of the Florida Legislature.

Florida is spending more than $31 billion on health care, but 2.5 million of its citizens--nearly 18% of the population--are still without insurance, Chiles said.

As a result, Medicaid now consumes almost two-thirds of all general revenues collected by the state each year, funds that Chiles said could otherwise be spent on education, police and other public services.

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Ross, a 43-year-old Tampa salesman told the senators that he is being forced to pay more than $3,000 even though his insurance policy has an $1,000 annual cap on out-of-pocket expenses.

Ross said he was denied full coverage because his insurance company believed “the charges were unreasonable.”

“Not in my wildest imagination did I think that two screws in my thumb as an outpatient would cost almost $10,000. After all this, I have to have surgery again on Dec. 5 to remove the screws because they were sticking out too much,” Ross said.

Wells said that her husband lost his job “for vague and unclear circumstances” that they suspect have to do with the high medical bills incurred by three of their four children, who suffer from respiratory problems, convulsions and seizures.

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She said that they were accepted for Medicaid only after they had lost their farm and savings. To cut costs, they began at one point taking their 10-year-old daughter to a nearby veterinarian in emergencies, she said.

“We are not unique. . . . " she told the senators. “What happened to us could happen to you tomorrow.”


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