To the Editor:
It’s not every day that you read about your health care clinic in the national press. But, that’s what is happening on Block Island. The Providence Journal published a letter to the editor from Barbara Baldwin, the executive director of its only health care facility, on Oct. 22. Titled “Abandoning Block Island,” the letter detailed how UnitedHealth tried to eliminate all Block Island providers from its Medicare network, thus abandoning seniors on the island.
How many elderly patients are being displaced? Twenty-five, according to a story that appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Nov. 16. That story helped turn things around for the clinic there. Seniors there seem to be back on the UnitedHealth plan. But the horror show continues. UnitedHealth is cutting way back on specialists for seniors on Medicare Advantage throughout Rhode Island. According to another story from the Providence Journal, “United cuts most surgeons from network,” UnitedHealth-covered seniors will have a very tough time finding a surgeon for many common procedures. Here’s the important point: 36,000 Rhode Island seniors have UnitedHealth cards that will hardly work for surgeries, including those on Block Island. (Reminder to all seniors: You must select your Medicare insurance company by Dec. 7, 2013.)
Let’s revisit the old health care days. Before the HMOs. When you knew you were covered and your physician did not spend all day dealing with the “managed care” organizations. Your deductibles were manageable. You and your doctor trusted your medical benefits card. That has, of course, all changed now.
A Warwick-based appliance serviceperson stopped by our house the other day. He is paying over $100 per week for his health insurance. His employer chips in a bit more. Yet he has to pay very large deductibles before his benefits card does anything for him. He is paying a lot more these days and getting very little value. Think about it. How can hardworking young family people stay in Rhode Island?
The Providence Journal published an eye-opening op-ed on Nov. 12, written by Hope Dillon, M.D., who recently closed her Warwick practice. It sounded the alarm that UnitedHealthcare was cutting deeply into the number of physicians available for services to elders in Warwick. Titled “Slashing rheumatology in Rhode Island,” it points out that United is, in effect, limiting access to its members and literally causing pain in the community.
Other alarming stories have been appearing. “In dumping doctors, UnitedHealthcare signals changes to come in health insurance,” written on Oct. 27 by Providence Journal health care writer Felice J. Freyer, offers this warning: “The day may soon come when your beloved doctor or preferred hospital won’t be part of your health plan’s network.”
Do we have an opportunity to start fixing the HMO problem? You bet we do. But we need to act fast before more of our better-off seniors flee to more hospitable places. Those of us left behind may be very hard-pressed to find anybody to fix our cars and appliances. Young people are leaving, too.
Last year, Rep. Frank Ferri, working with Rep. Joseph McNamara and Rep. David Bennett, all of Warwick, joined Reps. Maria Cimini of Providence and Teresa Tanzi of South County in introducing planning legislation to start dealing with the situation. Smith Hill leadership did not put their shoulders behind Rep. Ferri’s proposals. That needs to change or we are headed for a total meltdown in our health care delivery system.
The big political focus always seems to be how to create jobs. Startups have begun to pop up here and there in Rhode Island, but we need to welcome many more to keep our little state humming. Years ago, a number of companies moved to Rhode Island because benefit costs were lower than in surrounding states. The time has come to lead the charge to improve our health benefits situation to encourage new companies and new jobs.
Our new Health Insurance Commissioner, Kathleen Hittner, M.D., is a Warwick resident who understands the social fabric here and the need to hold costs down. In her former assignment as Board Chair of the Rhode Island Airport Corporation, she did an outstanding job of keeping that organization’s benefit costs in line with what the FAA and bond rating agencies required. Also the former president and CEO of Miriam Hospital, Hittner knows what has to be done to get to the point where new companies want to establish themselves in our state. That’s likely to be her overarching mission.
Let’s take advantage of the talent we have right here in Warwick: Frank Ferri, Joe “Mac,” and Dave Bennett on Smith Hill to get the planning in motion; our City Council people, led by President Donna Travis, to deal with costs to city employees; and Dr. Hittner, to encourage citizen participation and ask the right questions.
Legislative action is required in the upcoming General Assembly session. Our local politicians are poised to lead the charge. Dr. Hittner will encourage appropriate change. Beyond that, we need to voice our concerns and take whatever actions we can to improve the health benefits situation here in Rhode Island. Let’s put our heads together to dispel that dark cloud presently hovering over our tiny but dynamic state!