Community leaders made a forceful argument Sunday for the need to overhaul our nation's health care system to reduce costs and expand coverage. A series of speakers invited to Community for Change's "Community Conversation on Health Care" laid out the toll the current system is having on people, businesses and local governments, with several experts concluding change is needed.
Barb Tylenda, executive director of the Health Care Network of Racine County, gave a forceful speech about the need to expand health care coverage to all people. Tylenda was hired about 20 years ago to run the non-profit, but was only promised a job for three years because organizers said health care reform was inevitable. Two decades later Tylenda is still running an organization that is needed more today than at any time in its history.
"In 1987, the (health care system) was unacceptable," Tylenda said. "Today it is not unacceptable, it's unsustainable."
While the forum coincided with Obama's effort to reform the U.S. health care system (an effort that presidents have tried and failed at for 100 years), the most poignant debate among speakers centered on a "single-payer" system that would remove health insurance companies from the process and put the federal government in charge of paying for health care for everyone.
Paulette Garin, who ran for Congress in 2008, said a 6.6 percent payroll tax (essentially 6.5 percent of your pay would go to health insurance) would cover the cost of a national system that guaranteed every American top-of-the-line health care. She said the current system is broke because insurance companies place "profits over patients." The result are 46 million uninsured Americans who are locked out of the health care system.
Garin's line, "Health care is a human right," drew applause from the crowd and a shout of, "I am not a statistic." She described the fight for health care reform as the "civil rights movement" of our time.
"It's the fight of our lives because our lives depend on it," Garin said.
Dr. Kenneth Kurt, of Racine, rebutted Garin by saying 70-80 percent of Americans have adequate health care (though the safe number is closer to 65 percent), while those who don't have care cost the system "a tremendous amount of dollars."
"They're not the healthiest group of people in our country," Kurt said.
However, he didn't dismiss the idea of a single-payer system.
"We need to look at single-payer, but we need to look carefully at who is going to pay the bills," Kurt said, drawing applause.
Alderman Greg Helding (above) discussed the potential impact of health care reform on the local level. Helding estimated 20 percent of the city's budget pays for employees' health care. Switching to a single-payer system that charges an 8 percent payroll tax would save the city millions of dollars it could use for additional street maintenance and city services, like police.
This year alone the city is expecting an 11 percent increase in its health care costs, Helding said. Over time health care costs could grow to 10 times the amount of the city's property tax levy, a number that is simply unsustainable, he said.
"(Health care) costs us a lot of money and it's increasing rapidly," Helding said.
Rep. Cory Mason echoed Helding's speech on the state and national levels. He said 16 percent of every dollar is spent on health care - a number that far exceeds European countries' rate of 8-10 percent. Worse, the U.S. system provides worse coverage than other industrialized countries.
Mason said part of the problem is we have a "sick care system" that only responds when people are ill. Preventative care is often uncovered and too expensive, Mason said.
Racine gets it particularly bad because it has some of the highest health care rates in the country, but still deals with thousands of people without health insurance every year.
"We have to do better," Mason said.
Kelly Gallaher (above), of Community for Change, moderated the speakers during the forum. She opened the speeches by briefly discussing the organization's path to the forum. Community for Change was formed from volunteers who worked for President Obama's campaign, but is now working to become a non-partisan community organizer that connects groups around important issues, she said.
The health care forum gathered together 50 local businesses and organizations, 14 speakers, a 12-member community panel and three short documentaries made by local filmmakers.
Several hundred people (I'd guess 300, but no one had an accurate count) attended Community for Change's Community Conversation on Health Care Reform at the Masonic Center in Racine. Attendees listened to speakers and walked through an exhibit hall.
Designed as an opportunity to open dialogue about the leading issue of the day (Congress is debating an overhaul of the health care system), the forum's strongest messages came from a series of speeches delivered by local experts on health care and politics.
Sarah Clemmons (above), of the Racine Health Department, was on the list of scheduled speakers, among at least 16 in the afternoon. They included:
Bruce Joffe, LGBT Center; Jack Waters, Kenosha Community Health Center; Paulette Garin, Progressive Democrats of America; Nina Frank, ADRC; Steve Drenning, Transition Living Services; Sister Brenda Walsh, Siena Center; Maggie Bruhner, Lakeview Pharmacy; Mary Wilson, NAMI; Linda Stengel, Partners in Health; Art Shattuck, Roots and Legends; Betty Williams, Racine County Birth to 3 program; Jeff Van Koningsveld, IBEW; Greg Helding, Racine City Council; and Sarah Clemmons, Racine Health Department.
Featured speakers included: Ron Thomas, United Way; state Rep. Cory Mason; Barb Tylenda, Health Care Network; and Pastor Melvin Hargrove, Zoe Outreach Ministries.
RacinePost sat on the community panel along with County Executive Bill McReynolds, Mason, four aldermen, union leaders and others.
A small farmer's market was available outside of the Masonic Center. Fresh veggies and eggs were for sale.