March 6-12, 2003
VOL 122 NO. 9
By Kristen Fox / SUN contributing writers
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
The problem of inadequate health insurance is one of America’s biggest health challenges. In a country that prides itself on ensuring “basic rights,” such as food, clothing and shelter for all its citizens, over 41 million people are currently denied access to life-saving health coverage. The majority of this group though are not the homeless or the unemployed; rather they are neighbors –– hard-working individuals who have managed to slip through the cracks.
“People think that uninsured is a problem only for those living in poverty,” said Sister Marilyn Perkins, DC, vice-president of Missions Integration at Lourdes Hospital in Binghamton. “However, eight out of 10 people in our country are working without benefits. People, just like you and I, who are being denied coverage.” To raise awareness on the plight of the uninsured, Lourdes Hospital and several other organizations in Broome County have joined in Cover the Uninsured Week, a national campaign to establish the issue of the uninsured as a top priority in the U.S. Sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the week-long series of national and local events will take place from March 10 to March 16.
Over 33,000 persons in the greater Binghamton area alone lack health coverage. The Cover the Uninsured coalition in Broome County hopes to make people in the region aware of the severity of the problem on a national level, and more importantly, in their own backyard. The week kicked off Monday with a town hall meeting of political leaders and business and labor representatives from the area, coming together to discuss solutions to the health care problem. On March 14, an interfaith prayer breakfast will be held. The week will conclude March 15 with a health fair for the uninsured.
Eileen Sullivan, a social worker for the DeMarillac Maternity Program at Lourdes, works with pregnant women who are without health insurance, trying to get them quality prenatal care. She called the Southern Tier a region “plagued by health care issues.” Many of the women she sees are working full-time, but they are trapped in jobs, such as retail, where employees are less likely to receive benefits. They cannot afford care but need help, she said.
Sullivan noted that an average of 500 women per year come to DeMarillac seeking health coverage and access to doctors and care. She presents options to women, such as Medicaid, the primary source of health care for individuals with low-incomes, and Prenatal Care Assistance Program (PCAP), a New York State program that provides free health care for pregnant women. In trying to help the women, she sees the frustrations they encounter trying to obtain health care assistance. For example, some do not meet eligibility requirements for assistance. Although they are in low-wage jobs, they still earn incomes above the poverty level –– approximately $35,000 for a family of four in 2001 –– which determines assistance eligibility.
“There are women coming in who are barely getting by, but yet make too much money to qualify for state-funded programs like Medicaid. It’s upsetting, but we will not turn anyone away. We try to come up with something –– maybe they will have to pay for a portion of their care,” Sullivan explained. “What we do not want to see is women going into the ER whose children are born with birth defects because there was no help.”
Making services like those offered at DeMarillac available is critical because people who lack health insurance often hesitate seek basic health services. They fear that care might end up becoming a financial burden, said Sister Marilyn. They neglect getting care, even when in need of medical attention, and hesitate to have prescriptions filled. Consequently, they find themselves in poorer health and have a higher rate of hospitalization for conditions that, at one point, could have easily been treated.
“Because these people are without insurance, they delay getting care until they are ill and end up in the emergency room with a life-threatening issue. As a result, they are forced to pay more money and get even poorer,” said Sister Marilyn. “It is a vicious cycle of poverty.” Mary Lou Harvey of Johnson City knows all too well the importance of being insured. Her daughter Betsy died of inflammatory breast cancer at age 36. Mary Lou believes that her daughter’s death could have been prevented.
“In my opinion, my daughter did not die from cancer. She died from not receiving the prompt care she deserved because she was without insurance,” explained Mary Lou. “For months, she had been feeling unwell. Under normal circumstances, she would have seen a doctor. But without health insurance to cover the cost of a doctor’s visit, she waited too long.”
The problem started, Mary Lou said, in 1993, when her son-in-law Gary was laid off from his corporate management position with an international heavy-duty machinery company. Along with his job, Gary lost all medical benefits for himself, Betsy, and their three children. Unable to find a full-time position that offered family benefits, Gary worked more than 60 hours a week at multiple low-wage jobs, trying to earn as much as he could to support his family.
Meanwhile, Betsy was working as well, pointed out Mary Lou; she spent 12-hour days running a day care center out of their home. Not only was she exhausted, Mary Lou said, but she wasn’t making any money. When she and Gary took a hard look at her expenses, which were very high, they determined that it just wasn’t worthwhile. So Betsy closed the center in 1995. “They were both doing their best to ensure financial stability, but, like it is for many families, it was just so difficult,” she said. Betsy first complained about being sick in June of 1996, recalled Mary Lou.
“If it had been one of her children who weren’t feeling well, she would do whatever was necessary to get them better –– paying whatever it took out of her own pocket. But she refused to get to see a doctor herself,” Mary Lou said.
In October 1996, Betsy found out that she could get a free medical exam at a local clinic. The doctors took one look at her and knew right away that something was very wrong, said Mary Lou. They diagnosed her with advanced inflammatory breast cancer.
Three weeks later, Betsy was admitted to the hospital. The doctors tried chemotherapy, but it was too late. By then, the cancer had spread to her liver. Betsy’s body shut down. She slipped into a coma and died five days later.
As painful as it is for Mary Lou to discuss what happened to her daughter, she refuses to let Betsy’s death be in vain. As a member of Citizens in Action of Central New York, an advocacy group committed to economic and social justice, Mary Lou has crusaded for the past four years to help ensure affordable and universal health care for everyone –– something that she calls “wonderfully therapeutic.”
“What happened to my daughter is not uncommon. It seems like health insurance is becoming a privilege enjoyed by fewer and fewer people who can afford to pay for it. That’s a disgrace,” she said. “When you’re uninsured, you just have to hope that you and your family do not get sick. Because if you do, there are very few places for you to turn.” While all agree that something must be done, pinpointing a concrete solution to the complex problem of health care is difficult. There are services for those who need coverage but, as Sullivan pointed out, it is easy to fall through loopholes and eligibility requirements. A great resource is available through Fidelis Care –– the Catholic health plan dedicated solely to meeting the needs of the uninsured in New York State. In 2002, enrollment in Fidelis Care rose by more than 50,000 members statewide in Fidelis Care’s Child Health Plus, Family Health Plus and Medicaid programs. Mark L. Lane, Fidelis Care President and chief executive officer, said that this growth puts New York one step closer to ensuring every resident access to quality health care.
“As an advocate for low-income and uninsured residents, we believe that quality health care coverage is a basic human right,” said Lane. “Our commitment to ensuring that every man, woman and child has access to the health care services they need and deserve is going strong,”
According to a recent study by the United Hospital Fund, about half a million New Yorkers who are uninsured are eligible for a public program such as Child Health Plus, Family Health Plus, or Medicaid. Lane said that these services need to be more visible. As part of Cover the Uninsured Week, Fidelis Care will be conducting educational outreach and enrollment activities at several locations throughout the state. Lane added that is important to keep efforts such as these going year-round. “Currently, there is a statewide advertising campaign built around the theme Everyone Covered With Care. Fidelis Care is also in partnerships with the dioceses of New York, churches and schools, and community organizations such as Catholic Charities to increase enrollment,” stated Lane. “We are pleased and gratified by our progress but we know that there is much to be done.”
The issue of health care is a Catholic social justice issue, said Sister Marilyn. As members of the church, Catholics have an obligation to help raise consciousness on the plight on the uninsured. Clergy and parishioners should not only pray on the issue, but also spread the word on health care and what can be done to address the problem.
In a statement released last week, Bishop Moynihan called on all Catholics to make health coverage a priority. “Catholic parishes, schools and organizations have an unprecedented opportunity to reach out to the poor and uninsured during Cover the Uninsured Week. As the numbers of uninsured grow, it is important now more than ever for local communities to rise up as advocates for those who need a helping hand,” said Bishop Moynihan. “As centers of community life, our organizations should be at the forefront of these outreach efforts.”
Joseph Slavik, area director of Catholic Charities of Broome County –– also a sponsor of Cover the Uninsured Week –– agrees with Bishop Moynihan that there needs to be a constant awareness campaign about health care. “Health care is a basic human right, under the same umbrella as things such as food and shelter, but it is getting swept under the rug. Each of us has a responsibilty to bring it to the forefront of the local and national scene,” Slavik said. “Our country is bleeding, but there is no band-aid.” For more information on Cover the Uninsured Week events visit coveringtheuninsured.org.