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Bemidji health forum urges 'public option'

Minnesota House Assistant Majority Leader Larry Hosch, DFL-St. Joseph, makes a point during a health care forum Tuesday night at the American Indian Resource Center in Bemidji. Panelists included Jeanine Gangeness, left, chairwoman of the Bemidji State Department of Nursing, and at right, Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson1 / 2
Nearly 100 protesters gathered Tuesday evening along Bemidji Avenue to show their support for the administration's health insurance reform, followed by a health forum at Bemidji State. Holding signs, from left, are James Kloesel, Billy Annette and Mary Auger. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper2 / 2

America's insurance industry lost track of managing risk and instead manages profits, nearly all panelists said Tuesday night at a health care forum in Bemidji.

About 70 people heard a panel of about 10 health care professionals and lawmakers plug the so-called "public option," the President Barack Obama-supported call for a public health plan to compete with the insurance industry.

Dr. Craig Benson, a Bemidji family practice doctor, told of a woman in her late 20s between jobs who doesn't have insurance and can't afford the $90 a month for medicine to control her asthma. She ends up in the emergency room or urgent care in "dire straits."

Or the truck driver who can't afford insurance and is diabetic. He decides between doing lab work at $200 or medication. "Sometimes we get the lab work, sometimes the medication," Benson said.

"These are examples from my day-to-day practice of what I see is a very poor insurance coverage for a normal patient population in a typical family practice setting," he said.

Benson said he supports the public option or single-payer system.

Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, who serves on a Senate health care budget panel, was blunter.

"I have no hesitation to say that I come into this with a bias," Olson said. "I don't mind saying, as far as I'm concerned, we can throw out all the insurance companies in this country and I won't apologize for that."

Olson, an attorney, told of cases where insurance companies battled over which should pay a patient's bill, an argument that cost more than the bill itself.

Insurance companies have a job to do, which is to benefit people by spreading risk, she said. "Instead, what they have now become, is a large financial institution that manages our health care rather than sharing risk and they're managing it for their own financial benefit."

People don't get sick to benefit insurance companies, the Bemidji Democrat said. "They continue to find a way to make more profit out of the system and deliver less care."

The forum, sponsored by the Obama-backed Organizing for America and hosted by a local committee, followed a demonstration of about 100 people holding signs in support of the president's health care plan along the Lake Bemidji waterfront.

Health care "can be at a higher quality and it can be for everyone if we consider a public option," said Jeanine Gangeness, director of Bemidji State's Department of Nursing. "To take a public option out of the mix is really a harsh way to treat those who are really the most vulnerable in our population."

Wellness and prevention are really important, she said, but they don't get the payment as hospitalization does.

Dr. Diane Pittman, and emergency room doctor in Bemidji and Cass Lake, said she most recently worked for the Indian Health Service and said that "public option" program worked well.

Now, "there is not a single shift that goes by that I do not see somebody in the emergency department because they could not afford or have no access to primary care or medication," Pittman said. "If you don't have health insurance, we all pay for it."

She cited a case where an insurance company wouldn't cover an antibiotic medication but in the end, the patient had more expensive emergency room and hospitalization.

"This is what the insurance companies are doing to us," she said. "They are not truly insurance companies. They are not spreading risk. They are protecting their assets, and that's not your health."

Keynote speaker House Assistant Majority Leader Larry Hosch, DFL-St. Joseph, vice chairman of a House health care panel, urged forum attendees to seek out support for the plan from friends and relatives and to write recalcitrant members of Congress.

"Now is the time, with a Democrat president, 60 votes in the Senate and a huge margin in the House," said former state Sen. Skip Finn, DFL-Cass Lake, who moderated the forum. "If we can't get this done this year, it never will get done."

Health care costs have doubled since 2001, making it an important issue to tackle, Hosch said. By 2017, health care costs will have increased 156 percent.

Minnesota spends $30.7 billion a year on health care, and will grow to $78.5 billion by 2017-18, yet costs average 10.1 percent less per Minnesotan than the national average, he said.

"We cannot sustain the growth in health care costs," Hosch said. "Education can't afford it, our environment can't afford it, our roads can't afford it, our businesses can't afford it and our families can't afford it."

Minnesota has quality health care, allowing less cost per person, Hosch said. "But our costs are increasing faster the national average."

Nationally, 1.5 million families this year will lose their homes because of medical expenses they can't afford, he said. Seventy percent of those will be because of bankruptcies due to the medical expenses. Of those people, 63 percent have health care insurance.

"In the United States, with our income, with our power, with us being a world leader, I think that's absolutely unacceptable," Hosch said.

Health care reform, he said, needs to increase access to health care, contain costs and increase quality measures.

"We can't increase coverage if we can't control costs," Hosch said. "At the same time, we're not going to be able to control costs if we can't increase the pool of those getting health insurance."

Citizens are already paying for those not having insurance either through a public program or through uncompensated care as they seek emergency room care, he said, estimating that at about $1,000 per premium.

Operating healthcare like the free market won't work, he said, as there are too many variables such as a lack of coordination of medical data.

"We can use free market principles to increase competition and also reduce costs, but it doesn't work in the ambulance -- when you need emergency care, you can't go shopping for the best deal," Hosch said.

Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, took a shot at the several "tea parties" held in Bemidji protesting Obama health reform plans, calling them socialism.

"They cite 'We the people' from some document, the Declaration I believe," Persell said. "So what are the final 12 words of that document? 'We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.' That sounds like socialism to me, so let's get to it."