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At health insurance meeting, Kansans seek answers

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, Sep. 19, 2013, at 3:25 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Sep. 29, 2013, at 9:53 a.m.

Miles Thompson didn’t worry a lot about health care coverage for the 35 years he spent designing work spaces for Boeing and its successor company, Spirit AeroSystems.

Until he got laid off a week ago.

Now, he’s wondering how to keep coverage intact for himself, his wife and two children.

“For my family of four, COBRA (health benefit continuation coverage) will cost $1,500 a month,” Thompson said. “I think it’s insidious. Because so many of us have our insurance through our employment, you don’t know how expensive it really is.”

On Thursday, Thompson joined about 300 other Wichita-area residents who have slipped through cracks in the health system.

They were seeking help with insurance problems that they hope will be solved when the next big chunk of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, kicks in Oct. 1.

On that day, a federally run online health exchange will open, giving the uninsured and under-insured new opportunities to shop for coverage and, depending on income, to access subsidies to pay for it.

Thursday’s meeting was a nuts-and-bolts informational session on the intricacies of eligibility and access to health care under the act.

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and the Republican-dominated Legislature soundly rejected creating a state-run health marketplace under the federal health act. But Republican Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger has made it the mission of her last year and a half in office to help Kansans navigate the federally run system that will serve Kansas in a couple of weeks.

In Washington and Topeka, the Affordable Care Act is a high-stakes political battle. Obamacare has always been a term of derision for Republicans who have repeatedly tried to repeal or defund it. But since the president won re-election last year, Democrats have adopted it as a term of honor as they fight to defend the law.

For most of the people at Thursday’s meeting it wasn’t about partisanship or ideology. It was about real life – and hope that the national health plan will help them through hard times.

The meeting hall at the WSU Hughes Metropolitan Complex was packed with people like Jack and Karen Rogers and his mother, Ruby Miller.

The couple, both 63, took early retirement to care for Miller, who is 90 and suffered a stroke two years ago. Karen, who retired from selling Sleep Number beds, had to go back to work in a low-paying, part-time job at a home improvement store in order to get insurance.

But when her husband, a retired airline ground crewman, had a prostate problem about a year ago, the insurance she’d paid $3,000 in premiums for paid only about $1,000 of a $20,000 bill. They’re still paying off the rest, $450 a month.

And then two weeks ago, he had a transient ischemic attack, a type of mild stroke that has damaged his balance and strength. He now walks with a quad cane. They don’t know what his treatment is going to cost or when he’ll be able to lift his mother out of her wheelchair again.

The Rogerses are too young for Medicare and not poor enough for Medicaid. And if Karen increases her hours or income, she’ll lose her Social Security as well.

“We just want some clarity, what options we have, can it work?” Karen said of the act. “The only reason I went back to work was for the health insurance. That didn’t work out too well.”

Elizabeth Kammerer, 60, has gone without insurance since her husband, from whom she is now divorced, lost his job in 2010.

Until then, she’d been insured her whole life. Now, she works 22 to 26 hours a week at $8.50 an hour as a sales “lead finder” for a company that does bath remodeling.

She tried to get individual insurance but couldn’t because she was on medication for blood pressure and cholesterol – medications she no longer takes because she can no longer afford them.

“I probably talked to 20 (insurance) companies,” she said. “I didn’t meet their qualifications.”

Of the Affordable Care Act, she said, “It really does give you hope, but I won’t know until I go on the (online) calculator.”

Praeger said it’s her strong hope that the act will be the solution to problems like the ones people were bringing to her meeting Thursday. She said she’s heard lots of similar stories, and they’re all heartbreaking.

“We’re long overdue in this country for folks to have access to affordable health care,” she said.

Although it’s not perfect, the act does offer “an opportunity for people to put their minds at ease and get the care they need, when they need it,” she said.

Eventually, she said, she wants to see a system that relies less on pay-per-service medical care and more on maintaining wellness and early detection of disease. That, she said, would finally bring down costs for everybody and help people live longer and healthier lives.

“I think we have a long way to go,” she said.

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.

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