OP-ED: Arnold needs to terminate rapid rise in health care costs

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Alameda Times-Star

Some folks are all aflutter at the political biceps being flexed by our new action-hero governor as he tromps up and down the state pressuring legislators to rubber stamp his every proposal, and threatening serious electoral consequences if they don’t knuckle under.

But lawmakers are wimps compared to other evil forces lurching through California’s political forest.

If Gov. Schwarzenegger wants to really take on a predator-like foe, he should muscle up against the state’s health care delivery system.

I bring this up because in December I received my annual notice from Kaiser Permanente announcing my premium increase for 2004. I should have simply shredded the thing when I read “Merry Christmas, Chump” on the envelope, but I peeled it open anyway.

I knew the news would be bad but I didn’t expect this bad: a 42 percent jump in the premium beginning Jan. 1, from $345 to $490. Last year it was 44 percent, from $235 to $345. It’s more than doubled in two years. Corollary services like co-pays and hospital visits, also are up.

I am not alone. There may be as many as 10,000 people in this fix in California alone

But neither Schwarzenegger nor anyone else in government — with a few exceptions like Sen. Liz Figueroa, D-Sunol — seems aware of the immensity of the health care delivery problem, let alone motivated to do anything about it.

Here’s my story, only one of many:

I voluntarily left a full-time job in March of 2002. I had excellent health care coverage through my former company. Under COBRA, I was able to extend it for six months at affordable rates. As October of 2002 loomed, so did a larger COBRA premium, $400 monthly. I opted out, and looked for a Kaiser plan I could afford. The least expensive left me with no dental, vision or prescription
coverage, and a $20 co-pay for doctors’ visits.

It wasn’t great, but at $239 a month it was all I could handle. I signed on, beginning October 1, 2002. I figured if I was careful I could avoid the dentist and the optometrist for a few months until I had a regular job. I began to brush and floss my teeth with a new vigor, and stocked up on carrots. Imagine my surprise when I received a letter in December of that year telling me my premium would go up to $345 a month on January 1, 2003.

I learned my costs had gone up for two reasons. The first was because I had reached a certain age [he said coyly] in 2002.

Kaiser‘s minions had neglected to mention this age problem to me when I signed up for their supposed $239 a month plan in September, even though my birthday was in July.

It probably slipped their minds.

The second reason was a simple cost-of-living increase.

So, there I was, paying more money for less coverage, and more or less locked in because I worked for myself and not a large employer. I couldn’t realistically think of going elsewhere because I have that most dreaded of maladies, a pre-existing condition. HMOs don’t like to sign up people who have a pre-existing condition; if they do sign them up, the HMO requires the first-born son as collateral.

The “pre-existing condition” dodge is only one of many HMO shucks and jives that the state should clamp down on. The only people older than 40 who don’t have pre-existing conditions of one sort or another are those who were cryogenically frozen at the age of 35.

Anyway, I was and remain stuck with exorbitant premiums until I can find an employer who has a health plan and will hire me full-time.

Not that employers are being treated well by insurers: they are getting it in the neck as well.

The situation, for me and the thousands like me, is perilous financially, and affects all my health care decisions. I won’t go to the doctor unless I absolutely have to. I have expunged the phrase “preventive medicine’ from my lexicon unless by preventive you mean don’t get sick. My anxiety level has jumped [I could see a Kaiser shrink, but the co-pay is now $25 a visit; better to bite my nails.]

Ironically, as I look for regular work, I have landed free-lance jobs interviewing other victims of the health insurance industry. Most of them feel betrayed and jerked around. Many are in far worse straits. [To learn about these people, or contribute your own story, see the website for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights: http://www.calhealthconsensus.org

As Kaiser‘s latest lump of coal festers, I continue to interview other HMO victims. Countless individuals and families are taking the same hit. I talked to one whose premium shot up 73 percent, to just under $11,000 annually.

The inescapable conclusion: The health care delivery system in California is putrid and decayed. It is sucking the life out of patients. It needs a strong leader to fix it.

Gov. Schwarzenegger, instead of breaking bread with insurers, should take a real look at the suffering the people of this state are enduring. Let him “terminate” that.
Bob Cuddy is a former city editor for the Fremont Argus and editorial pages director for ANG Newspapers.

Consumer Watchdog
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