Aired At Yankton Hearing Lawmakers Hear Testimony By Nathan Johnson
Yankton Media, Inc. One thing all panelists could agree on Wednesday during a health care hearing convened in Yankton by South Dakota's top Democratic legislators is that reform of the industry is needed. Sen. Tim Johnson and Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin heard testimony from individuals who have found current private and public health care coverage inadequate, and received recommendations for improvement of the health care industry from professionals in the field. The second of three hearings the two legislators have scheduled across South Dakota got under way just as President Barack Obama began pitching his ideas for health care reform in Virginia. The first hearing was held in Sioux Falls Tuesday and the third will be held today (Thursday) in Mitchell. Congress is still wrangling over the shape that health care reform will take, but Obama says he wants a plan that will cover nearly 50 million uninsured Americans, cut spending and improve the quality of health care. Johnson and Herseth Sandlin say a single-payer system in which the government would provide health coverage for everyone is not a part of any serious discussion being held in Washington. Instead, they say the focus is on combining private and public plans. "A lot of the discussion is ways to keep the private insurance companies honest by having either a public option or a national consumer-owned co-op to give consumers more choice," Herseth Sandlin said. "If people like the health benefits they have, they will be able to keep them. They will continue to have their choice of doctor. There will be no rationing of care or government control. The proposals that are serious proposals focus on fixing what is ailing the system and what is costing us far too much." "We'll have trouble maintaining the costs without some sort of public presence along with the private insurance companies," Johnson added. "Otherwise, private insurance companies will charge you an arm and a leg. The secret to keep the plan affordable is to have a public plan." The first segment of Wednesday's hearing featured three area women who have encountered hardships because of shortfalls in the current coverage system, as well as one small-business owner who is struggling to keep up with increasing costs. Steph Neesser of Dakota Dunes related the ongoing travails her family has faced in meeting the medical needs of her 3-year-old son, Jack. "Jack was born with a broken heart," she began as she fought back tears. "We barely had a chance to greet him before he was taken out of my arms and transported to the Children's Hospital in Omaha. From there, Jack underwent open-heart surgery to save his life. Though the surgery was successful, our nightmares had just begun." Jack has lung defects that have made hospitals a second home for the family of four, and in days he will undergo another heart operation. Neesser said she and her husband live in fear of not being able to afford the care their son needs. They have contemplated divorce, asking for less pay and medical bankruptcy in order to qualify for more health coverage options. "My message is, private insurance is not enough when faced with having a child who is chronically ill," Neesser said. As a new mother herself, Herseth Sandlin, who admitted she couldn't help but become emotional after hearing the story, was noticeably shaken. "Stephanie's story demonstrates tenacity, that they've looked at every option and they're still going broke," Herseth Sandlin said. "My anger is directed at those who are suggesting that everything is fine and Washington doesn't need to help fix this problem, or that the private insurance market will solve all these problems. That's not working. "We've got a lot of people who say they're satisfied with their plans," she added. "I don't doubt that many people are — until they have a health care crisis like this and they understand the limitations of their plan." Recalling the 1970s, Yankton farm implement dealer Mark Hunhoff said the cost of group health insurance was insignificant at the time. "It's turned into, in this decade, one of the highest overhead costs we have and definitely one of the highest benefits we offer to our employees," he said. "The administration of this is almost getting to be a nightmare. Once a year, you have to review your plan and compare it to others. You almost have to be an attorney to review them and compare them." To make sure employees get the coverage they paid for, Hunhoff said he often gets personally involved in negotiations with the health insurance companies on their behalf. "It's almost as big a hassle to help (employees) get through this as it is to pay the bill," he said. Also sharing their stories were Jody Clarke of Yankton, who had no insurance when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and Pat Norin of Centerville, who spoke of her difficulty in holding on to insurance while caring for her disabled daughter. In a second segment of the hearing, Johnson and Herseth Sandlin heard testimony from five health care professionals about what elements they think should be part of a health care reform plan. Dr. Pam Rezac, CEO of Avera Sacred Heart Hospital and chairwoman of the South Dakota Hospital Association, said the organizations she represents recognize that the current health care model is not sustainable. "We know we must improve and health reform is needed," she said. She believes that individuals should be required to maintain health care coverage, and private insurance coverage options and the employer-based system for providing that coverage should be preserved as part of the solution. Rezac added that an environment that encourages quality health care along with patient safety and cost efficiency is necessary. Lastly, individuals need to take an active role in staying well and managing their health care needs. Dr. Brian Kaatz, dean of the University of South Dakota Department of Health Services, and John Mengenhausen, CEO of Horizon Healthcare, stressed that accessibility to care has to be addressed in rural states like South Dakota. "Even if we could acquire total insurance coverage tomorrow, there would still be access problems because of the limited health care providers in place," Kaatz said. South Dakota is in high need of physicians, physician assistants, physical therapists and other medical professionals, he explained. Despite the efforts of institutions like the University of South Dakota to get medical professionals in rural areas, Megnenhausen said he has had little luck in recruiting them to the rural areas his organization serves in the state. Jeff Stingley, director of public affairs for the Sioux Falls Good Samaritan Society, noted the need to cut down on the fraud and waste that drives up Medicare costs. The importance of encouraging healthy eating, exercise and preventative care in a health coverage plan was discussed by Angie O'Connor, director of the Avera Sacred Heart Wellness Center. Johnson and Herseth Sandlin said they will take the testimony they've heard this week back to Washington as they look for ways to overhaul the health care system. "South Dakota is a state that is primarily small businesses, farmers and ranchers," Johnson said. "They belong to too small of an insurance pool, so they pay top dollar for everything they get. It is states like South Dakota that have the most to gain (from health care reform)."