Thursday, April 21, 2011

Single Payer System for Maine:

Tuesday, May 3, 2011, four of us from Aroostook County, traveled to Augusta to attend the hearing on a bill to provide a single-payer health-care system for Maine.  It was one of the most gratifying experiences of my recent political activity.  Many people showed up to testify in support of the bill, LD 1397, and the opposition disappeared from the room as it came time for their testimony.    One lone opponent who appeared to be an insurance lobbyist showed up after testimony closed and asked to be permitted to speak.  He did, and that proved to be a fitting closure to the testimony because he did not address any of the specifics of the bill, and all he did say served to convince us that he had not read it.  Much of the testimony focused on a variety of problems the bill could resolve, including creating a more friendly business environmnet for Maine and providing a more level competitive playing field for Maine workers in the global market.  Following is testimony two of us gave on Tuesday.  It addresses some of the personal stresses faced by individuals trying to get affordable health care insurance that the single-payer bill would help to alleviate. 

Testimony in favor of LD 1397
An Act To Establish a Single-payor Health Care System To Be Effective in 2017

by Alice Bolstridge 
I am a retired teacher with a Maine State Retirement pension.  When I signed up for Medicare in 2003, the only additional coverage I could get for which the MSR System would pay their share was Aetna, the company providing my health insurance at the time of retirement.  I started paying about $350 a month from my own pocket, and the premium went up every year.  At some point I needed surgery and was hospitalized for several days.  When the bills started coming in, I discovered that I did not have the supplement plan I thought I had, but a catastrophic insurance plan that also provided some coverage for prescription drugs which I didn’t need.  Aetna did not pay any of the co-pay expenses for the surgery and hospital stay.  By this time my premium was up to about $450 a month.  With the state’s share, my insurance was costing over $700 a month.  Not only was I getting ripped off, the state was, too.  As a taxpayer, I was cheated twice to pay for Aetna profits.  The whole experience was a nightmare with trying to figure out if I should blame the insurance company or the providers who kept harassing me with bills. 

When the collection agency threatened me, I paid the bill to get some peace of mind, but my trust in some of the health care providers involved in that has never recovered.  I don’t intend to recover trust in for-profit insurance.  It is foolish for any of us to trust our health to companies whose only motive is profit.  And it is foolish to trust providers who are encouraged by the way they are paid to compromise quality of care and to waste money for unnecessary procedures.  I dropped Aetna coverage and picked up an Advantage plan.  I don’t trust them either.   They start you out cheap and then increase the premiums by 100 percent or more every year.  The first one stopped offering the product I had after about 2 years.  The one I have now started out with a payment of $0 per month and increased the premium to $50 per month the first year.  I don’t even know how to calculate that percentage.  These companies are getting subsidized by the federal government; we are cheated again.

When I first began my experience with a non-profit Blue Cross/ Blue Shield decades ago, our insurance life was simple and worry-free.  Faced with a life-threatening illness of one child that went on for several years and involved several hospital stays, we all—the patient, his family, and the providers—could focus on the medical problems of the illness, not on what we would have to sacrifice to pay for the treatment.   We need a payment system that returns us to that simplicity, effectiveness, and trust. 

This bill is especially important in view of the Health Care bill, LD 1333, that was already voted out of committee as ought to pass and is especially bad for seniors, rural areas, cancer patients, and people with other preexisting conditions.  Mainers, support LD 1397, and get for-profit insurance companies out of the health care business.

by Shelly Mountain.

I am here to support single-payer. I live in Mapleton with my husband and two sons. We are small business owners which means that we have an individual insurance plan. Until just a month ago we were paying Anthem $516 a month for a policy with a $15,000 deductible. It covered absolutely nothing before that $15,000 deductible. We were paying $6200 a year and still responsible for all of our medical expenses, which usually works out to at least that same amount in a year. I have stopped going to the doctor myself for any reason. I have strong family histories of both breast and colon cancer
but I do not get mammograms or colonoscopies because I can’t afford them. My understanding is that the Affordable Care Act now requires those things to be covered through insurance but Anthem never told me that and since my policy was grandfathered into the old system they were not required to cover those
things under that policy. The only way I found out about it was when I testified in March against their proposed rate increases. It is common practice at Anthem to keep policy holders in the dark about anything that would benefit the policy holder.

My 12 year old son was involved in a snowmobile accident this past winter and complained of severe pain from what he believed was a broken a rib. I hesitated about taking him to the ER. I knew an ER visit would be very expensive and that it would probably involve an expensive X-ray. I wondered, “Can they even do anything for a broken rib?” I ended up going because he was complaining about pain when he breathed. The winter before that I waited 3 days when he had a severe sore throat and fever before I finally took him in to find out he had strep throat and double ear infection. Untreated strep can be very dangerous.
I pay Anthem $6200 a year and I still struggle with whether I can afford a strep test on my son. I pay Anthem $6200 a year and still I have bill collectors calling and harassing me for payment of medical bills. I pay Anthem $6200 a year that I receive no benefit from. Where does all that money go?  Last year Anthem’s treasurer, R. David Kreschmer, had a compensation package that totaled almost $2.4 million. Last year the CEO of Anthem’s parent company, Wellpoint, was paid $13.1 million. Last year Anthem contributed money to political campaigns, including Governor LePage’s transition. They use my money to affect legislation that will add to their profits but exacerbate my ability to be a responsible parent. I have been financing my own worsening healthcare situation.

This shameful condition will continue to worsen as long as health care remains an industry motivated only by profits. The insurance companies have made it obvious that they are unwilling to contain their costs. They have made it clear that they value high executive pay and profit above the health care of their subscribers. Insurance is the only business that exists by charging increasingly excessive prices while providing absolutely no service. Insurance was originally developed as a means for many people to pool resources that could be used to help community members when they incurred costs that no one of them could afford individually. It is no longer that. It has become something in itself that fewer and fewer people can afford. We need to return it to its roots. A single payer system would provide a more reasonable and just pricing structure. Fewer administrative costs would mean that more money would actually be spent on citizen’s health care needs. Insurance companies and the executives who run
them would stop profiting off the suffering of Maine citizens.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Cheapest Pleasures

That man is richest whose pleasures are the cheapest.
Henry David Thoreau

By way of metaphorical usage, cheap has acquired connotations of seedy, disreputable, worthless, but Thoreau meant it literally to refer to the minor cost of spiritual riches attained from a frugal life.  One example is the cheap pleasure of imagining owning a house with some property as opposed to actually owning it:
An afternoon sufficed to lay out the land into orchard, woodlot, and a pasture, and to decide what fine oaks or pines should be left to stand before the door, and whence each blasted tree could be seen to the best advantage; and then I let it lie, fallow perchance, for a man is rich in proportion to the number of things when he can afford to let alone. 
Tolstoy also has a short fable, “How much Land does a Man Need?” about a man with just enough land to supply his basic needs who seeks more.   Every acquisition of new property increases his hunger for more until, eventually, he sacrifices everything and literally runs himself to death seeking more land. 

In spite of proclaimed values in agreement with Thoreau and Tolstoy about simplicity and frugality, I find myself in old age often distressed about how to manage bookkeeping and maintenance of property and possessions.   I have way too much stuff.  Shelves and shelves and shelves house close to a thousand books.   They take up living space, perpetually need dusting, and the only reason I don’t own more is that I give so many away to make room for more.   Surrounding my work desk and leaving only narrow aisles to get to books, filing cabinets bulge with over forty years of accumulated drafts of writing projects and paperwork from managing real estate, personal accounts, and investments.  To simplify my life, I sold a big old house I owned and invested the money, which earns some interest, which I must manage, capital—ugh.  And then I bought another house bigger than I need.  So I now have, again, gardening and snow-removal machines and paraphernalia, an over supplied kitchen, and stuffed closets.  All of this always needs organizing which, like dusting, never gets completed.  Vanity, all vanity.  Just the sheer number of possessions and money complicates my life and interferes with the pursuit of the cheapest pleasures I believe to be the best.  Pleasures like observation, contemplation, and creative social activity.

With all of this, by today’s standards, the entire value of my possessions does not qualify me as above lower middle-class in the prevailing view of American-dream aspirations.  Except for the aspirations of our Maine Governor who asserts that his proposed budget puts anyone with an annual income above 19,000 + a few dollars in the rich income-tax bracket and thus the beneficiary of a tax cut amounting to about 6-10 dollars.   Still, relative to the poverty in the world, I am too rich.  

My country is too rich, too greedy, spends too much money on trivial luxuries.  Multi-car garages house air- polluting vehicles at private homes.  Multi-billion dollar industries finance sports teams, junk movies, junk TV shows, junk news as entertainment, and junk internet products for addicted spectators who require ever increasing and costly fixes of escape from the cheap pleasures of stimulating and socially valuable work, conversation, and activity.  Huge shopping malls, both mini and maxi, provide an endless stream of useless consumer paraphernalia.  Garish advertising litters the landscape and the mind and extinguishes cheap pleasures of natural and artistic beauty.  Multi-billion-dollar profits of corporations feed a lust for ever-more power that money buys.  Adding insult to injury, our government practices spending priorities that encourages all of this—when facing a national crisis, President Bush said, “Go to Disneyland.”  Spend money.  Have a good time.   The energy it takes to fuel all these trivial pursuits pollutes and degrades the earth that could with the right values and priorities supply all of our most basic needs and all of our cheapest, most satisfying pleasures.  

The more we spend in pursuit of mind- and spirit-deadening pleasures of escape, greed, and power, the more we resort to war to protect and keep our American way of life, nearly perpetual war since the founding of our nation.  In my lifetime, WW II, the Cold War that took in the hot sites of Korea and Viet Nam, Wars in the Near East—Iraq, Afghanistan, now Libya, and our interminable military support for Israel and all over the rest of the world.  War, with all the expense of its production and repair of collateral damage, is the costliest luxury.  And there is no appetite by either of the major political parties to even reduce war, let alone eliminate it, as a way to resolve international conflicts.   The spending-cut deal for 2011 negotiated by Boehner, Reid, and Obama does not touch military spending, over half the total budget.  Seeing how often the right thing to do gets compromised, I’m deferring judgment about Obama’s promises to cut military spending in the future. 

There are known solutions to these problems if we can collectively find the will to apply them.  Likely the best place to start is to reduce the obscene gap between rich and poor that grows and grows.  In “Equality is Better—for Everyone,”  Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett use comparison studies between the more income-equal nations like Japan and the Nordic countries and the less equal ones like the U.S., Britain, and Portugal to show that “inequality is socially corrosive” for everyone, not just the poor.  In countries where the gap between the rich and the poor is smaller,
the statistics show that community life is stronger and levels of trust are higher.  There is also less violence, including lower homicide rates; physical and mental health tends to be better and life expectancy is higher . . . . prison populations are smaller, teenage birth rates are lower, educational scores tend to be higher, there is less obesity and more social mobility.
. . . . . . . . . .
Even the well-off do better in more equal countries . . . . live longer and enjoy better health . . . . Everyone enjoys the benefits of living in a more trusting, less violent society. . . . More equal countries give more in foreign aid and score better on the Global Peace Index.  They recycle a higher proportion of their waste and think it more important to abide by international environmental agreements. 
In contrast,
mental illness is three times more common in more unequal countries [U. S. is the most unequal in the world] than in the most equal, obesity rates are twice as high, rates of imprisonment eight times higher, and teenage births increase tenfold.  (People First Economics)

Individually, we would be healthier by getting out of the car more often and enjoying the cheap pleasures of walking, running, or biking (and the earth would thrive better, too).  We would be happier as well as healthier if we channeled our hunger for power into gaining control over expensive entertainment appetites that are never satisfied.  Collectively, we would improve the mental health of ourselves and our culture by taxing obscene riches of the entertainment industries and applying the revenue to full funding of PBS and to high quality education and health care for all.  We could provide for the earth’s health and welfare by requiring all polluting enterprises to pay for cleaning up the messes they produce and then to stop polluting.  We could substantially reduce the national debt by requiring corporations with huge profits and financial institutions that are too big to fail to pay their fair share.  See Bernie Sanders’ list of the top ten freeloading corporations who not only don’t pay taxes but get subsidies, refunds and bailouts from the rest of us who do: We could further reduce the debt and would all be physically, mentally, and spiritually healthier with individual and collective commitments to put costly violence and war behind us as outmoded solutions, and to leave the world a cheaper, more peaceful place than we find it. 

Friday, April 15, 2011

Peace Rally, Bangor, Maine

April 9, 2011

Alice, Mike, Steve
from the Peace and Justice Center of Aroostook
which meets every Sunday at noon since the invasion of Iraq in 2003
to walk for peace across the Aroostook River Bridge.