HARRISBURG, Pa. - Republicans as well as Democrats testified for a single-payer health plan for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, embodied in Senate Bill 400, at a meeting of the state Senate Business and Industry Committee here on Dec. 16. Republican Don White, who chairs the committee, said he believed the issue is an important one that deserves further attention.
Sen. Jim Ferlo, the lead sponsor of the bill, explained that the private insurance model is a failed one. He said a single-payer system would, in addition to providing health coverage for all Pennsylvanians, free businesses from having to devote time and money to research plans and coverage for their employees. Further, he noted, businesses often play a game of musical chairs, by having to constantly change to more affordable plans. This results in employees having to change doctors frequently, and interferes with continuity of care.
Two Democrats and two Republicans spoke for passage of the single-payer plan. The proponents of the bill argued for the humanity of health care for all, as well as the fiscal responsibility it represents. The political diversity of the panel demonstrated the potentially broad appeal of state single-payer health care.
Chuck Pennacchio, executive director of Healthcare for All Pennsylvania, and a tireless worker for SB 400, emphasized how a single-payer plan would benefit business, and that it is consistent with good business practices.
Patricia Eakin, a nurse, gave moving testimony about her experiences working in one of the busiest emergency rooms in Philadelphia, located in one of its poorest neighborhoods. She spoke of patients who come to the ER with far-advanced complications of chronic illnesses - illnesses which, if treated early, can be managed without complications. One patient she described came to the ER with very high blood pressure and was found to be in kidney failure. If he had been covered by insurance, and if his high blood pressure had been cared for earlier and properly with medication, he would not have to face the future of pain and suffering that comes with dialysis three times a week. In addition, millions will be spent on his dialysis. The cost of managing his high blood pressure would have been miniscule in comparison, Eakin pointed out. Ironically, she said, his dialysis will be paid for with public money.
A Republican doctor, Dwight Michaels of Gettysburg, began his remarks stating that he had always thought he lived in a country that cared about people. He went on to speak about the bureaucratic nightmare the members of his practice face when dealing with insurance companies while trying to provide quality health care to their patients.
Another Republican who is a former state legislator, small-business owner David Steil, directed his remarks to the positive effect a single-payer plan would have on businesses. He spoke about how the cost of providing insurance has made competition in a world market a near impossibility for him.
Those opposing the bill represented industry groups like the Pennsylvania Medical Society, Capitol Blue Cross, the Hospital Association and the Insurance Federation. Some of their testimony was inaccurate, comparing SB 400 to the health reform bills now before the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. They cited the specter of government control of health care and rationing (ignoring the fact that thousands of Pennsylvanians unable to go to the doctor due to lack of insurance have been completely rationed out of the system), and a claimed increased cost to taxpayers if SB 400 is passed.
In fact, the state bill would increase taxes, but individuals and employers would no longer have to pay insurance premiums, and it is projected that this would result in huge savings.
There was a call for funding a feasibility study to determine the benefits as well as the shortcomings of SB 400.
Many single-payer advocates feel Pennsylvania is closer than other states to achieving a single-payer health care system. The present governor, Democrat Ed Rendell, has said he will sign the bill, and organizers have garnered bipartisan support for the bill, as the Dec. 16 testimony showed.
Photo: (left to right) State Sen. Jim Ferlo, Chuck Pennacchio of Healthcare for All Pennsylvania and nurse Patricia Eakin at the Dec. 16 hearing. (www.healthcare4allpa.org)