Health care costs remain important issue for voters

From behind the prescription counter at Village Pharmacy in Waynesville, Jim Winfree has a bird’s eye view of rising drug costs in America.


“It’s a big subject, and it is something we deal with every day,” Winfree said. “Medication costs have escalated. That’s for sure.”

Meanwhile, Gary Hughes is struggling with rising cost of health care in general. As a small business owner, Hughes began offering health insurance last month for his 12 employees at Hughes Electrical Contracting for the first time since starting his business seven years ago.

“It is hard to afford,” Hughes said. “We’ve had to turn up the volume of work we are doing to offer that.”

Another side to the health care crisis in America is the unisured and working poor. Virginia Casada, a Medicaid supervisor with the Department of Social Services in Franklin, witnesses first-hand the struggles of the poor and middle class in paying their health care bills.

For working families, the threshold to qualify for Medicaid is low that a single mom making minimum wage does not even qualify. She’d be better of not working so she could get assistance. Adults with no children are not eligible for Medicaid — period. Imagine someone in a low-wage job without benefits who is diagnosed with diabetes. They couldn’t possibly afford their insulin.

“Lots of times there is nothing we can do to help somebody in that situation,” Casada said. “Those people fall through the cracks.”

Solutions to the web of health care problems in America — rising drug costs, health insurance burdens on employers and the plight of the uninsured — aren’t impossible.

Winfree said Congress could have passed a better prescription drug plan. The one put in place did little to help matters. Instead people are generally unhappy and frustrated with it, Winfree said.

To ease the burden of providing health insurance for small businesses, Hughes recommends better tax incentives for those who are willing to step up to the plate.

And to help the working poor, Medicaid formulas could be improved by simply raising the federally recognized poverty level, which is used to calcuate who’s eligible and who’s not. Raise the poverty level, and more people will qualify for assistance.

The spiraling cost of health care and prescription drugs hasn’t exactly snuck up on America. Although it’s been discussed in Washington for years, little has been done.

The issue is resonating with voters this fall, according to David Mills, executive director for the Common Sense Foundation in Raleigh.

“Poll results we’ve seen shown that people are generally very dissatisfied with Congress. When asked why, the Iraq war is high on the list but health care is right up there,” Mills said. “It is getting far too expensive for people to get basic health care. I would say it is one of the most important issues to people in North Carolina.”

The Bush Administration’s attempt to tackle drug costs for seniors was botched by most accounts and has not panned out as a useful talking point for Republican candidates to tout. It was not only confusing, but didn’t really save most seniors any money, according to Mills. There were dozens of plans to choose from, each of them covering some drugs but not others, making it difficult to find a plan that covered all the drugs a person takes or might need to take in the future. Plus there’s the infamous donut hole — a gap in coverage where seniors have to pay extraordinary amounts out of pocket before their plan will pick up the tab.

James Andrews, the North Carolina president of the American Federation of Labor, was in Asheville this week criticizing the record of U.S. Rep Charles Taylor, R-Brevard, on health care and other issues he called important to working families.

Andrews said health insurance is increasingly becoming a top issue in labor contract negotiations.

“There is no doubt that health care costs is a major cost for employers,” Andrews said. “Employers are trying to drop that cost. They are either doing away with it or dumping it on employees.”

Andrews said inaction by Taylor and others in Congress is ruining the nation’s middle class.

“The uninsured in this state continue to climb,” Andrews said.

Three years ago, health care costs were blamed in part for a workforce reduction of 100 employees at Blue Ridge Paper Products in Canton.

“Health care is serious. We’ve got to do something about it,” Darrell Douglas, vice president of human resources at Blue Ridge, said at the time.

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