Rally focuses on health care woes

Patient advocate group hopes to spur change in way HMOs are run

April 02, 2000|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Participants at a rally in Towson yesterday urged state leaders to make quality health care available to all, noting the hardships of nearly a million uninsured Marylanders and the mounting criticism of the insurance industry.

The event, organized by the Maryland Patient Advocacy Group, drew about 50 people, many wearing T-shirts that read "Managed Health Care may be hazardous to your health" and carrying signs with slogans like "Let Your Doctor Decide."

"The health care system in the U.S. is broken," Dr. Richard L. Humphrey, an oncologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital, told the crowd gathered at Cancer Survivors Park near Towson Town Center. "It is a non-system and it does not care. Nationally, there are 44 million uninsured and two times that number underinsured."

Humphrey, who has practiced medicine for 40 years, listed "disgraceful statistics" that placed Maryland third in the country for the number of uninsured:

About 837,000 residents -- one of every six, or 17 percent of the state population -- lack health care coverage.

One of every four uninsured is a child.

Eight of every 10 uninsured adults are working.

Allison Long, a 29-year-old mother of two, ranks among those numbers. She and her husband are students working part-time with no insurance benefits. When she developed a back problem last year, she spent five months trying to find a doctor who would perform routine surgery and work out a payment plan with her.

"I was treated like a second-class citizen," said Long, who attended the rally. "With many doctors, I could not even get past the secretary. It was dehumanizing and unfair."

Susan Pisano, vice president for communications at the American Association of Health Plans, which represents more than 1,000 HMOs, said the organization wants to provide the best health care to the most people. The most pressing problem, she said, is lack of coverage.

"We need to look at who is without coverage and come up with an approach to address why they are," she said.

Vincent DeMarco, executive director of Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative, estimates 800,000 Maryland residents have "woefully inadequate health insurance." He spoke of a family that pays $300 monthly for insurance. The policy carries a $5,000 deductible per family member, making it "non-insurance," he said.

"Then, there is the problem of those not getting quality care," he said. "Thirty-one percent of the insured say they have been denied medical treatment by providers."

Marty Corona, a registered nurse, said insurance regulation is taking a toll on health-care professionals and patients.

"So few people arar II. What was a competition that used benefits to lure the best employees evolved into for-profit ventures that wanted only those with minimal health risks, he said.

"So few people are getting so little for such a high cost," she said. "At some point, every one of us is going to be a patient. You could be taking your life in your hands."

Paul Cummins, a retired Blue Cross executive, traced the history of health care since World War II. What was a competition that used benefits to lure the best employees evolved into for-profit ventures that only wanted those with minimal health risks, he said.

"Those $5 co-pays sold like hot cakes," said Charlie Gerhardt, president of the patient advocacy group. "But, if you needed two extra days in the hospital, they would not pay."

Cummins said that health care has deteriorated to the point of what insurers will accept.

"They are corporations which by their nature look for profits," Cummins said. "Profits should not be the motivating factor here. Insurers cannot tell doctors how to practice medicine."

Physicians are often caught in the middle, said Dr. Brent Berger, a primary care physician with Whiteflint Family Practice.

"We feel pressure by patients to give referrals and by HMOs to limit referrals," said Berger.

In a public demonstration last year, Dr. David Jaffe, a Havre de Grace dermatologist, burned all his managed care contracts and referrals. Hee I can look at a lesion but not biopsy it or tell me I can look at an arm and not a leg."

Insurance companies dropped Jaffe from their plans, but many of his patients were willing to pay him out of pocket and stayed with him. His practice has grown by 1,000, since his protest.

"Insurance companies and middle managers were dictating what care I could provide," he said. "That should be between doctor and patient."

A poll, commissioned by DeMarco's group, showed 78 percent of Marylanders believe that everyone has the right to quality health care, he said. His group is calling for sweeping reform and has enlisted more than 500 organizations in the effort to guarantee quality health care to all residents.

"We want to put together a plan that make sense for Maryland," DEmarco said.

One rally-goer had a suggestion.

"If we do universal health care, we should do it with taxes on tobacco and alcohol," said Judy Freed of Towson.

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