Rally touts 'single-payer' health care

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About 150 people gathered at a Downtown rally yesterday to support changing the health care system in ways that neither of the major-party presidential candidates has proposed.

Demonstrators outside the Fifth Avenue Place headquarters of Highmark, the region's largest health insurer, advocated for all Americans to receive "single-payer" health care, the kind of government-administered coverage provided to Medicare recipients.

Single-payer proponents contend that insurers add needless costs to the system, and in some cases, deny coverage.

Demonstrators at the lunchtime rally wore blue gloves to convey that health insurers should keep their "hands off our health care" -- a pointed reference to Highmark's marketing slogan, highlighted by a blue handprint, that people should "have a greater hand" in their health.

Similar rallies were scheduled in other cities around the nation.

A single-payer system would help end the "tremendous inequality" in access to health care, said Dr. Chris Butler, a family physician from Park Place who took part in the local event.

Jean Budowanec traveled from her home in Hinckley, Ohio, with her daughters Elise, 16, and Jeanette, 23. She said they came on behalf of her sister-in-law, who was left with a $15,000 hospital bill after an insurer declined to pay because of a pre-existing health condition.

Highmark, whose surplus grew to $3.5 billion last year, said in a statement that rapidly rising medical costs are the primary reason more Americans are unable to afford coverage. Highmark also said it uses nearly 90 cents of every premium dollar to pay for medical care for its members.

Unlike the single-payer approach, reforms suggested by the presumptive Democratic and Republican presidential nominees would build on the current insurance system, though their approaches are very different.

Sen. Barack Obama, a Democrat, would create a National Health Insurance Exchange for any individual and business that wants to purchase a private insurance plan or enroll in a new public plan. Subsidies would be provided to families with lower incomes to help make insurance affordable.

While still giving workers the option of retaining their employer-based coverage, Republican candidate John McCain would make tax credits available to help them obtain their own insurance. He also wants to allow people to purchase health insurance across state lines.

Dr. Len Nichols, director of the health policy program at the New America Foundation, said the Obama proposal would be more likely to succeed in Congress than either Mr. McCain's plan or a single-payer proposal.

Tax increases associated with the single-payer approach "almost make it a nonstarter," said Dr. John Holahan, director of the Urban Institute's Health Policy Center.

Joe Fahy can be reached at jfahy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1722.


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