Health care rally draws crowd

Demonstrators seek universal health care

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Martha Rial, Post-Gazette
Michael Plaskon, a member of the National Association of Letter Carriers, demonstrates with others in front of Fifth Avenue Place calling for a national single-payer healthcare system. This was one of several demonstrations across the country organized by Healthcare-NOW to highlight the need to national health insurance.
Click photo for larger image.

Supporters of universal health care said at a Downtown rally yesterday that the nation should extend the kind of coverage offered under Medicare to all U.S. residents.

About 100 people from labor organizations and other groups gathered outside the Fifth Avenue Place headquarters of insurance giant Highmark Inc. Some carried signs that read "46 million uninsured" and "universal health care -- we can't live without it."

The event, sponsored by the Western Pennsylvania Coalition for Single-Payer Healthcare, was affiliated with Healthcare-NOW!, a grass-roots network that includes groups representing unions, churches and physicians.

The national group, which planned similar demonstrations yesterday in other cities around the nation, supports H.R. 676, a proposal by Rep. John Conyers of Michigan to provide health care coverage to all residents.

"This is not going to be an easy fight," the Rev. John Welch, pastor of Bidwell Presbyterian Church in Manchester and president of the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network, told the demonstrators.

Ed Cloonan, executive director of the Independent State Store Union, noted that state lawmakers also have introduced House Bill 2722, which would establish universal health care in Pennsylvania.

Some lunchtime onlookers agreed the health care system needs to be changed.

"We're the richest nation in the world and there are so many people who don't have health insurance. It's a shame," said Donna Scott, 49, of Homestead.

She said she has coverage but noted, "I have to pay an arm and a leg for it."

The demonstration was held outside Highmark because it represents "all that's wrong with the current health care system," said Ed Grystar, an organizer of the demonstration.

The demonstrators, who said universal coverage could cut overhead costs in private insurance programs, noted that Highmark reported a surplus of $2.8 billion in 2005.

In a statement, Highmark said its surplus was within limits considered appropriate by state insurance officials and that it provided $140 million last year in financial support for a variety of community programs, including more than $101 million to help hold down health care costs and expand access for lower-income families, older adults and children.

Edmund Haislmaier, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation's Center for Health Policy Studies, agreed the current health care system is inefficient. But even if major efficiencies were achieved through universal health care, he said, funding the system would likely require a major increase in payroll taxes.

The current Medicare system is paid for with a 3 percent tax on wages, he said, and a universal health care system would require a tax of 8 to 10 percent.

In Pennsylvania, H.B. 4722 calls for funding universal health care from a variety of sources, including a 10 percent payroll tax and funds from federal health care programs.

Jennifer Tolbert, a policy analyst at the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, said that despite strong grass-roots support, Conyers' proposal has generated little momentum in Congress.

Some states appear more interested in reforming their health care systems, she said, in part because increased numbers of uninsured people have placed greater pressure on state Medicaid programs.

Massachusetts, she noted, is implementing a plan that provides coverage to virtually all residents.

The plan calls for state residents to obtain health insurance by July 2007. Businesses with more than 10 employees who do not provide coverage are to pay annual assessments, and individuals face tax penalties if they can afford health insurance but do not obtain it. The state plans to provide subsidies to help lower-income residents obtain coverage.


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


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