People write first lady telling of woes

HEALTH COMMISSION FLOODED WITH MAIL 75,000

April 03, 1993|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The only thing more amazing than giving birth to her daughter in a hospital lobby was the bill Janis Moss Light received afterward.

The hospital not only charged the 36-year-old Frederick woman for a fetal heart monitor and an IV that weren't used during the birth, but also tacked on a surcharge of about $300 for delivering Hannah in the lobby on New Year's Day.

"A surcharge for delivering in the lobby?!#?" Mrs. Light wrote in a letter to first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton on Feb. 2. "You would think that the fee would be reduced given that I so magnanimously gave up a private room."

Mrs. Light isn't the only one writing to the White House to detail her frustration with the country's health care system. More than 75,000 letters have poured into Mrs. Clinton or the task force on health care reform that she is heading.

Some letters are intensely personal and painful to read, baring the agony and frightening cost of caring for very ill or injured relatives. Others, like the one written by Mrs. Light, mask their anger with humor.

They are a vivid reminder of the high expectations that people have as they wait for the Clinton administration to complete its health reform package.

The task force originally hoped to be finished with the plan by May 1. But completion has been delayed by at least a few weeks partly because of the absence of Mrs. Clinton, who has been with her gravely ill father in Arkansas.

Many of the letter writers are undoubtedly sympathetic to Mrs. Clinton's plight.

Brenda L. Robinson, who lives in Calvert County, sent in 24 pages to the White House, documenting the severe maladies afflicting her son, Ricky, now 2 years old. He has had stomach surgery, repeated infections and has spent at least 14 months in hospitals. And the bills have exceeded the lifetime, $1 million limit on the family's insurance plan.

How will they pay future bills? They don't qualify for Medicaid, the medical program for the poor, and have rejected well-wishers' advice that they "become destitute" to be eligible.

"We appeal for ourselves personally," she wrote to the president and Mrs. Clinton, "and for each and every citizen of the United States, for you to do something about our current health care system; to help those who desperately need assistance and cannot afford it."

The letters are read and responded to by a team of 20 White House volunteers. But some have more impact than others, as Jennifer L. Arnold, 33, of Bowie, discovered when she wrote to Mrs. Clinton to complain about her family's inadequate health insurance.

With three young children, and her husband, a truck driver, providing the only income, the Arnold family can barely afford to pay the out-of-pocket expenses required by his insurance policy.

"The health insurance we receive through the company he works for is ridiculous," she complained in a neatly handwritten, four-page letter dated Feb. 15. "We must meet a yearly $750 deductible per person before we receive any benefits."

To Mrs. Arnold's surprise, the task force invited her to a meeting. For two hours on March 25, the 33-year-old housewife and nine other ordinary people griped about the health care system while 10 members of the task force staff listened.

The staff tested attitudes about higher taxes to pay for the cost of covering 35 million uninsured Americans. One letter writer who attended, a salesman from Montgomery County, recalled being asked: "Would we be willing to pay an extra eight to 10 percent in federal income taxes in order for everyone to have a basic health-care package?"

The salesman's answer: an unqualified no.

They were also asked what they thought of Oregon's health reform plan, which will expand the Medicaid program to cover many insured people but eliminate payment for some kinds of costly care, a form of rationing.

What the administration plans to do remains to be seen. Staff members gave no clue in their meeting with the citizens, according to Mrs. Arnold.

But she and others who took the time to write clearly expect action. Many noted in their letters that they had never written any government office before.

A woman from Crofton wrote of the absurdity of an insurance plan that will pay a fortune to hospitalize her husband, who had a heart transplant in 1988, but not for a nurse to come by the house and help keep him well enough to avoid the hospital.

"This was ludicrous, but it was the rules," she said. "I understand the need for rules limiting certain services, but if there had been a process to look at certain cases to justify bending the rules, a lot of money could be saved and used in other ways."

Aimee Y. Cooksey, 64, of Forestville in Prince George's County, began her letter simply, "Dear Hillary." She described two common problems, the high cost of many prescription drugs and the difficulty unemployed people have obtaining affordable insurance.

"My husband is 65 years old and retired," she wrote. "He has Medicare but without a prescription card. Each month we pay out of pocket for his non-generic prescriptions an amount of $312. He has Parkinson's Disease and needs these four kinds of medications for the rest of his life."

They also pay $300 a month for her insurance, which is a continuation of the policy her husband had until he retired nearly a year ago. But the policy will increase to $700 beginning in June. Should she drop her coverage and gamble that nothing will happen until next year, when she turns 65 and is eligible for Medicare?

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