Last month, Kathryn Thuma read about a man who felt Kaiser Permanente had put a lump of coal in his stocking over the Christmas holidays by imposing a huge increase in his premium. Kathryn looked at her own December Kaiser bill and thought about the metaphor. Then she decided that it wouldn’t work for her. "Kaiser didn’t send me a lump of coal," she says. "They sent me a boulder."
Metaphors and mangled Christmas stockings aside, Kaiser socked Kathryn with a huge cost increase in December, the latest in a series of indignities visited on her and other patients by health care giants throughout California.
Kathryn’s monthly premiums jumped from $300 to $490. Most of her co-pays doubled. In-patient hospitalization shot up from $200 per admission to $200 per day. "Oh, yes," adds Kathryn. "The member services gal says did say that I now have prescription drug coverage," which had been stripped away two years ago. "Big whoopee!"
Kathryn, 53, is minister of music at a Fremont church. She also teaches voice and piano and is embarking on her own business, marketing instructional music CDs. A Long Beach native, she graduated from Cal State Dominguez Hills. She taught for many years in southern California and came to Fremont two years go.
Kathryn always has had to monitor her health. Since she was 16 she has had Crohn’s Disease, a malady that attacks the digestive system.
She joined Kaiser about 10 years ago when she was teaching in the school district. Her plan took care of the health care bills, and "life was good," Kathryn says.
Five years later she got sick, missed three months of work, and had surgery twice in six months. Unable to keep up with the demands of teaching, she was forced to quit. "COBRA tided me over for 18 months," she says. "I was only paying about $185 a month for the same coverage I had through the school district."
By the time the COBRA ran out, Kathryn was in northern California, working for a non-profit that offered no health benefits. She converted to a personal plan, but because of the Crohn’s Disease she had to choose one that did not screen applicants. She lost vision and prescription coverage and her premiums went first to $260 a month, then $300 and finally to $490 this December.
What worried Kathryn most is the hospital cost increases. ‘I’m hospitalized regularly," she says, and has had four surgeries.
"Quite frankly, I’m scared," Kathryn says. "I’m not able to work full-time, and I’m years away from retirement"
Kathryn considers it a "cruel irony" that "those who are the most dependent on good medical care are the ones who are getting shafted." She points to a recent study that predicts heart disease might be eliminated in five to 10 years. Even if that happens, she says, "for most people the cost will be prohibitive."
Meanwhile, she faces higher costs and a fearful future. "I’m just hoping that someone — or a group of someones — will affect a change in the situation before it’s too late for people like us."
What kind of change? She’s not sure, although she would not be averse to an independent panel that forced health care providers to justify their premium and other increases. She is less sanguine about government-run health care. Kathryn corresponds via the Internet with others around the world who have intestinal problems, and some of those people live in countries that have socialized medicine. Many criticize it, she says, as "dysfunctional and bloated."
She believes, however, that "it can work if it’s done right. There has to be a way." In the meantime, "any band-aid would help; every little bit (of reform)."
The bottom line, she says, is that our health care system is not working properly. But Kathryn is optimistic. "One of these days the tide will turn."