Town Hall Puts Focus on State's Uninsured

Times Staff Writer

Visibly nervous, business owner Luis Jimenez stood before a roomful of health-care advocates Monday and explained why he does not offer insurance to the 11 employees at his small public relations business in Santa Monica.

"I can't afford it," he said.

Neither can he afford insurance for himself and his wife, who is expecting the couple's first child in April.

Embarrassing as it was to discuss his predicament in public, Jimenez told listeners at the California Science Center in Los Angeles that millions of people share his predicament -- either as employers or employees.

"Ninety-nine percent of my staff is well-educated, holds four-year degrees, and it breaks my heart not to provide health insurance for them," Jimenez said. "And now that my wife is having a baby, it's really opened my eyes."

Jimenez and the experts were participating in a town hall meeting as part of "Cover the Uninsured Week," a national effort to heighten awareness of the health-care insurance crisis.

About 41 million Americans have no health insurance, and a recent study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation using census data found that about 75 million Americans had no coverage for some period within the last two years.

For the first time in a decade, a coalition of divergent groups -- some of them political adversaries -- is hoping to push insurance coverage to the top of the national agenda. Former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter are serving as honorary chairmen of the coast-to-coast effort.

Speakers at the Los Angeles news conference and town hall included former Mayor Richard J. Riordan; actor and activist Rob Reiner; Los Angeles County Chief Medical Officer Thomas Garthwaite; Patty DeDominic, chairwoman of the California Chamber of Commerce Committee on Health Care Reform; and Hector Flores, chairman of the White Memorial Family Practice Center.

"For too long, the number of uninsured Americans has continued to rise by the millions, while the issue has remained low on the list of national priorities," said Robert K. Ross, president of the California Endowment, a health-care philanthropy.

"We understand the country is distracted ... but I cannot think of an issue that has elicited more homeland insecurity than the fact we have 75 million uninsured."

Experts at the town hall drew a detailed picture of health coverage -- or the lack thereof -- in Los Angeles County and the state. Newly released data by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research found that more than 6 million Californians were uninsured for at least part of 2001.

Whites and African Americans fared best, with 86% having had health insurance throughout 2001, compared with lower proportions for Asians Americans and American Indians. Latinos, at 64%, were the least likely to be insured all year.

Los Angeles County is at the center of the crisis, with more uninsured people than most other parts of the country.

"We're one of the few counties in the state, let alone the nation, with a public hospital system," said Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke. "But what the consequences are of how to serve that many people with no resources" is daunting, she said.

People often fall from the rolls of the insured as their employment changes.

Jesse James, 43, of Covina said he was between jobs when he tumbled from his roof in December 2001 while making repairs. He landed on his head and went into a coma. After a year of speech and physical therapy, he can walk and talk, but faces $500,000 in hospital bills.

"What happened to me could happen to anybody," he said. "How do you pay back half a million dollars? You can't. You just think about surviving day-to-day and do the best you can."

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