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Wednesday, July 2, 2008 09:07 am

Don’t just blame the uninsured

Health-care justice advocates seek to dispel myths

Untitled Document Retired coal miner Paul Perrine says he can’t get health insurance. Perrine, 52, who worked in the mines for 30 years and has hurt his back on several occasions, was recently turned down, he says, because of those old injuries. Everything is a preexisting condition,” he says. Perrine belongs to the Champaign-based Campaign for Better Health Care, a group that’s trying to fix Illinois’ broken health-care system.
Members of the Campaign’s Springfield working group — mostly retirees and representatives of local social-service agencies — met last week at the Center for Independent Living to discuss ways to get policy-makers to act. Among their objectives: Dispel myths about the causes of the health-care crisis. For example, it’s not only the poor and unemployed who are straining the system, says Ceceilia Haasis, a member of the campaign. “The vast majority of people who don’t have health insurance actually work,” she says. Joy Kronenberg, another campaign member, notes that even when individuals are able to get insurance through their employers, they often cannot afford coverage for their spouses and children. As a result, she says, more and more people, both the uninsured and those with insurance, are relying on hospital emergency departments these days, but much of the blame for today’s increasingly overcrowded EDs is incorrectly heaped onto poor patients without insurance. Dr. Linda Nordeman, medical director of emergency services at St. John’s Hospital, says several factors explain the heavier use of EDs everywhere.
“There’s a lot of rhetoric around emergency departments and overcrowding, but when you really look at the nonemergency patients that are coming to our emergency department, it is not the uninsured patients who are causing the overcrowding,” she says.
Nordeman cites a survey published in the April issue of Annals of Emergency Medicine, which revealed that although ED use among the uninsured has remained steady nationwide, the number of visits by middle-income patients, who often have insurance, has increased sharply in recent years.
In the past decade, ED visits as a whole have also increased by 20 percent, Nordeman says, but the number of EDs across the country decreased by 12 percent. These trends are showing up in Springfield. Memorial Medical Center saw 12.4 percent more patients at its ED in 2007 than in the previous year, according to the hospital’s 2007 annual report.
However, Nordeman reports that, contrary to the Annals study, the number of people who lack insurance visiting St. John’s for emergency care has “risen sizably.”
She attributes this in part to the scarcity of drug-detox centers in Springfield and the limited number of dentists who accept Medicaid. St. John’s alone handled 1,500 dental and 1,714 drug and alcohol cases last year, she says. “There are more people who are sick, fewer providers, and longer wait times,” Nordeman says. “The price is human suffering.”
She adds that if the trend continues, more EDs, which are especially critical to the safety net in smaller communities, could close their doors. “This affects every citizen of this country,” she says.
Perrine, the retired coal miner, says that the nation’s priorities must change: “We have all the money in the world for bombs and bullets, but we can’t take care of our people.”

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com.
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