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Forum at Fort Hays showcases health care issues

11/4/2009

By KALEY CONNER

kconner@dailynews.net

As director of the Fort Hays State University student health center, Dona Koenigsman knows what it's like to see patients who are unable to afford prescriptions and medical attention.

It's because of that experience that national health care reform efforts have captured her interest.

"It's very difficult to tell somebody, 'I'm sorry, your insurance isn't going to pay for that today,' " Koenigsman said. "And they have no money, and they have to be denied health care, or I can't give them their medication."

It's also that experience that prompted her to share her expertise with a group of about 50 students and faculty members at a health care forum Tuesday evening.

The "Healthcare: Get in the Game" event, sponsored by Forsyth Library, FHSU's Learning Commons and the American Democracy Project, featured three guest speakers who discussed pros and cons of proposed national health care reform legislation.

Despite college students being dubbed an "invisible minority" in the health care debate, it's important for young adults to know how these changes could affect them, Koenigsman said.

Currently, college students have the opportunity to purchase insurance policies through the university at a low cost, she said.

"If you go to this mandated health care program, their insurance prices are going to rise, which is going to cause hardship for the college kids and the younger adults," she said.

In fact, if a push to change the current 5-to-1 age band to a 2-to-1 system -- meaning older individuals pay twice as much for insurance compared to younger customers -- is successful, young adults could see the cost of health insurance premiums double, said Sunee Mickle, director of government relations for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas.

On the other hand, such a measure could reduce premiums for elderly customers, she said.

"That's why it does make sense if you're older, but it doesn't make sense, really, for being younger and having to pay for insurance," Mickle said. "To double my premiums would have been catastrophic for me when I was in school."

It is important, however, to have as many people as possible purchasing health insurance to subsidize the system, she said.

Current proposals also could result in an average cost increase of about $2,000 for single coverage and a cost hike of nearly $4,000 for a family policy each year, based on current figures in the individual market, she said.

The Topeka-based insurance company favors health care reform, but opposes the idea of a government-run insurance plan.

Rather, BCBS wants customers to have local customer service connections, she said, noting every insurance company is different.

"People need a bad guy in every story, and really the health insurance industry had become the bad guy," Mickle said. "And really everyone needs to take responsibility for health care reform and everyone needs to understand it. We're all going to have to pay."

All three speakers seemed to agree that some sort of health reform is needed. Dr. Marilyn Ray, a fellow at FHSU's Docking Institute of Public Affairs, pointed out the U.S. already spends more money on health care annually than any other country.

And with an estimated 47 million Americans uninsured, the inability for individuals to purchase medical care has been attributed to almost 22,000 deaths each year, Ray said.

"What potential are we losing out on all these people who are sick and could otherwise be productive?" she said. "Preventive health care is a lot cheaper than paying for sick people."

The event was organized by Tania Alekson, learning commons coordinator, who recently moved to Kansas from Canada.

"With all the debate, I just thought it was important to bring some real information to the students instead of the rhetoric they hear on TV," she said.

"We started planning it in early September, and I was afraid that the whole debate would be over by now," Alekson said with a laugh. "No, no. It still goes on."