Hospitals seeking expansion of health coverage for poor

Academic health centers back gradual steps to aid 40 million uninsured

January 15, 2002|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

The University of Maryland and 28 other academic health centers nationally are lobbying for an expansion of government programs to cover the 40 million people in the United States who lack health insurance.

Dr. David Ramsay, president of the University of Maryland's Baltimore campus, held a news conference yesterday in West Baltimore to demand an end to the "national disgrace" of rising numbers of uninsured people.

"If we don't take action now, this problem is going to get worse and worse, particularly in an economic downtown," said Ramsay, until recently the president of the Association of Academic Health Centers.

Backed by lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore, the university hospitals are pushing for a more gradual approach than the health care overhaul proposed by the Clinton administration nearly a decade ago.

The advocates hope to work with a Republican administration and avoid a backlash from business groups by taking a more pragmatic approach. Instead of providing insurance for 40 million more people at once, the group wants to cover an additional five million a year by enrolling them in existing programs and slowly expanding those programs.

For example, the organization backs an effort by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Olympia J. Snowe, a Republican from Maine, to expand the federal Childrens' Health Insurance Program to cover poor children's parents also.

Such an expansion could cost as much as $28 billion over five years and would insure perhaps another three million adults.

The hospitals are also lobbying for federal and state governments to pay hundreds of millions more every year to increase Medicaid reimbursement rates so the hospitals can afford to treat more indigent patients.

"Senator Kennedy has never shied away from his support of universal health care, but that is never going to fly in this Congress at this time," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Kennedy, who did not attend the news conference. "Instead, we are working on incremental improvements with bipartisan support."

Skeptics wondered how the government could finance such an expansion during a recession.

"How are we going to pay for all this?" asked W. Miles Cole, senior vice president of government affairs at the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. "The question is amplified by the weak state of the economy."

The campaign by the Association of Academic Heath Centers is to include news conferences and other events this winter at Loyola University of Chicago, the Baylor College of Medicine, the University of Tennessee and the National Press Club in Washington.

Yesterday's news conference was held at the UniversityCare health clinic in the Edmondson Village Shopping Center at 4538 Edmondson Ave. in West Baltimore, which was decorated with red, blue and gold balloons.

More than 100 people attended, including Dr. Georges Benjamin, secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

"Too many Americans are continuing to lose their health insurance, and they continue to get sick, and this is not an issue we can put in the closet," Benjamin said. "Why not everyone [insured]? It's a matter of social equity."

After the event, three city families that have struggled with health insurance problems talked to reporters.

Chanell Joines, a 28-year-old part-time Hertz rental car worker from Woodlawn, said government programs insure her four children but leave her without insurance.

"It's not fair. Many of the jobs out there today don't provide benefits," Joines said. "But we really need health coverage. If I get sick, I can't take care of my children."

The university health centers' campaign is separate from an initiative launched last year by Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Peter L. Beilenson and others.

Beilenson is helping lead the Maryland Citizens Health Initiative, a broad-based association of community groups, churches and others seeking to make Maryland the first state to offer universal health insurance.

Beilenson praised the academic hospitals' campaign yesterday because, he said, it shines a light on a problem that includes about 105,000 Baltimore residents - about 16 percent of the city's population - who lack insurance.

But he said he questions whether incremental changes will work.

"A lot of people talk about incrementalism, but remember that since Clinton brought this problem up 10 years ago, there have been lots of incremental changes, and despite the booming economy of the late 1990's, the number of insured decreased," Beilenson said.

"We need a comprehensive approach to solving the problem."

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