Hungry for health care answers

The Elks Lodge on West Shore Road was a packed house Sunday evening as Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) hosted a community pasta dinner.

There, Whitehouse answered questions and listened to concerns from Warwick residents about what he considers America’s broken healthcare system. Around 300 people attended the event.

Among the crowd were some prominent officials, including Edward Quinlan, President of the Rhode Island Hospital Association, Chris Koller, Rhode Island’s Health Insurance Commissioner, State Representative Frank Ferri (D-Warwick), and city council members Joseph Solomon (Ward-4) and Donna Travis (Ward-6).

But most of those in attendance were ordinary citizens worried about the state of health care in America and, perhaps, given the state of the economy, welcoming a free meal too. The majority of those in attendance were more than 50-years-old.

Debra Bettencourt, who owns a small tax preparation business in Warwick told her story about her business can no longer afford to not only provide health insurance for her few employees, but also herself.

“Part of what holds us back is the fear that I won’t be able to afford health care coverage, and now I can’t,” said Bettencourt.

Whitehouse, wearing no tie and a cardigan sweater, briefly addressed the audience saying he intended to focus on health care reform going forward so he could help people like Bettencourt. Whitehouse then answered questions from those in attendance.

“Real people are caught up in the issue of health care. It’s not just about lobbyists and big dollars,” said Whitehouse.

The majority of the questions and statements from the residents in attendance were complaints about corporate greed and what the Congress could do about it.

Robert Habershaw, who owns stakes in three small retail companies, said the cost of health insurance is crippling his business.

“How can Blue Cross, in these tough economic times, get away with a ten percent increase on small businesses? Blue Cross needs to reduce their expenses and maybe have their employees take a pay cut because (small businesses) can’t take it anymore,” said Habershaw.

Whitehouse told Habershaw that unfortunately, because the situation is so specific, and insurance regulation has largely been left up to states, there was little Congress could do to help his plight other than shine a light onto the situation.

Whitehouse then went on to say that the problem with insurance companies is that their incentive is to deny claims.

“The big principle here is if you’re sick, we don’t want to insure you,” said Whitehouse.

Jim Boyajian, a former teacher’s union business agent who resides in Warwick, has known Whitehouse for a number of years. Boyajian said he couldn’t understand why prescription drugs at Wal-Mart are almost half the price of what the cost at the Veterans Affairs, and planned on asking the Senator what he could do about it after the meeting.

Whitehouse also talked about the importance of making the healthcare industry become more efficient with respect to health information technology. Much like public utilities, Whitehouse said, the cost of health information technology should be borne by taxpayers, not individual doctors. Whitehouse also said that privacy shouldn’t be compromised in the shuffle of implementing the transition to electronic medical records.

One lady, who refused to identify herself, criticized the Congress for authorizing the $700 million bank bailout. She threatened to vote Republican if the remaining $350 million was given to bankers.

“If that money is given to the banks, I’ll vote Republican, which I’ve never done before,” she said to cheers from the audience.

Whitehouse criticized the Bush administration for fumbling the administration of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, but defended the government action into the free market.

“The bottom line is if the banking system collapses it brings everybody down with it,” said Whitehouse.

Whitehouse also introduced a new aspect of his Website that will allow the public to share their healthcare stories with the Senator.

“As I travel around Rhode Island, I hear stories from people whose lives and whose health have collided with our broken, dysfunctional health care system,” said Whitehouse. “Now that we have a new president and a new commitment to make reforming health care a priority, I want to bring these stories with me to Washington and make sure Rhode Island’s voice is heard as we begin this critical debate.”

By:  Russell J. Moore
Source: Warwick Beacon