CHICAGO - Hundreds of health care reform advocates, union leaders and small business owners rallied outside the Renaissance Hotel here Nov. 17, while America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) held its national Fall Forum inside.
Inside the hotel, eight small business owners from around the country held a press conference, recounting their health care horror stories. They spoke of exorbitant private health insurance costs that force them to choose between the growth of their livelihoods - including keeping and expanding jobs - and their ability to afford necessary health care for themselves and their employees. After the press conference the group joined the hundreds outside.
Kay Forbes-Smith has owned and run an international corporate communications and training firm for 20 years in Indiana. She currently offers group health insurance to her employees, paying half the premiums, but she constantly faces increasing costs that have forced some employees to opt out of the plan. The costs of health care hurt Forbes-Smith's bottom line and her business' ability to competitively attract talented employees.
"As a small business owner we want our employees to have access to healthcare," she said. "But some employees can't afford their half of the insurance premiums, putting themselves and their families at risk."
Forbes-Smith continued, "Small businesses are supposedly the backbone of our country's economy. We just want to do our part but we need significant health care reform to do that," she said.
Rick Poore has run his Nebraska screen print and embroidery business for 15 years doing business nationwide. He is unable to provide insurance to all 33 of his employees, but he still pays more than $61,000 in insurance costs between a group plan for half his full-time employees and subsidizing individual plans. The costs prevent him from investing in the growth of his business to remain competitive in his market.
"Last year I paid over $60,000 in premium costs that could have been better invested in my business," he said. "Every year our benefits seem to be eroding away."
"The current health care system we have is seriously broken and for small businesses like mine, we either have to remain competitive or offer health care to our employees," Poore added. "If it takes a strong public option to fix this problem than so be it."
It's a big lie when insurance companies say reform is a job killer, said Poore. "Health care reform is an economic stimulus and will help us get out of this recession."
Jan Wood and her husband own a martial arts business in Illinois with two part-time employees and other part-time instructors. A family member's pre-existing condition has made coverage unaffordable, thus forcing them to pay almost $24,000 out-of-pocket before their benefits kick in. Their inability to offer coverage has prevented them from hiring full-time sales employees and growing their business.
"The key to bring people out of this recession will be due to the strength of small businesses," said Wood. "Health insurance is both a physical and financial necessity and we want the option of paying a fair price for fair coverage, which will mean a healthy economy for all in this country."
Wendell Potter, ex-CEO of Cigna, joined the small business owners and spoke at the rally. Potter said there is no doubt that AHIP was in Chicago to launch a new wave of lies and fear mongering against any initiatives toward passing health care reform. They just want to make sure Wall Street stays happy rather than ensure the well-being and health of ordinary working citizens.
After a 20-year career in the health insurance industry Potter said he finally left because he did not want to be part of an effort to kill health care legislation from passing in Congress.
Big insurance wants to get lawmakers to vote against the best interests of their constituents, said Potter.
"I could not in good conscience be a part of another campaign to block reform, and I'm here to urge my colleagues to denounce the fear mongering and stop spreading lies," said Potter.
"I ask that they do what's right in their hearts for the citizens of this great country," he said. "It's not to late to turn away and do the right thing." Health care reform might not make us rich but it will let us sleep better at nigh, he added.
Activists at the rally said health care reform advocates and supporters must do whatever it takes to influence lawmakers and view this fight as the most important battle of our lifetime.
A letter on behalf of the small business owners was sent to Karen Ignagni, the president and CEO of AHIP, requesting she meet with them to hear their stories in person prior to the event. Ignagni ignored the request.
"Maybe if Ms. Ignagni heard from small business owners, she would better understand whom she and her colleagues are fighting when they lobby against good, affordable health care and the choice of a public health option," said Richard Kirsch with Health Care for America Now.
AHIP has paid millions of dollars trying to block health care reform, organizers of the event say. AHIP also released a discredited report last month that Time magazine called a "selective, dishonest analysis" and the Associated Press said "uses facts selectively" and is littered with "misleading spin."
"This is a disgrace," said Tom Balanoff, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 1, referring to the stories of the small business owners. "Not just today but for the last 20 years the health care system has not benefited working people," he said. "It's driven by profits and what we need to have is a strong public option so we can start to take the profit out of the formula."
Balanoff added, "This fight is not just about health care reform it's about how we are going to reform our entire economy. There has to be a recovery for working people not just for the banks or the fat cats at the top."
Co-Executive Director of Citizen Action/Illinois William McNary fired up the crowd at the end of the rally.
"We need to reaffirm the basic human value that we are responsible for ourselves but we are also responsible for each other - I am my brothers keeper and I am my sisters keeper," he said.
"Let us stand together so we can tell our children and our grandchildren one day that we fought for health care reform and won."
Now let's get to work, he said.
Photo: People's World photo by John Bachtell.