Affordable Health Insurance Needed

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Dear Editor,

I have been asked about the legislation for Universal Health Insurance for Employed Persons. It was originally drafted by the V.I. Bureau of Economic Research at the request of the Governor, then sponsored by Senator Roosevelt David. I do not know if it died with the 26th Legislature, or if he transferred sponsorship to someone who was re-elected. For the working men and women of this territory, the lack of affordable health insurance is a travesty. People are the most vital asset of any business…how can we afford to leave them without dignified, secure health insurance?

It was a well-conceived plan to bring affordable health insurance to everyone in the Virgin Islands (although non-employed persons and children were not required to carry coverage, the door was opened because almost everyone has at least one employed person in their household.)

Last September, CIGNA expressed interest in participating, which brought additional credibility and stability to the plan. Unfortunately, the 26th Legislature ended without enacting it. The reason CIGNA became interested was because we in the V.I. kept the issue hot and alive, through over 15 town meetings and committee hearings. Now we have lost the momentum. And now, a year later, we hear that the hospitals are in dire straits.

The hospitals both testified last week at the budget hearings that they are spending $40 million per year in unreimbursed treatments, i.e. people who come to the hospital emergency room but can’t or don’t pay. This is staggering. How can the hospitals maintain their march toward excellence if we present them with the requirement to provide service to all comers, but will not reimburse them directly for those who don’t/can’t pay?

Instead, we (the government) handle to hospital’s payroll expenses of ~$22 million, while forcing them to “eat” $40 million in losses! This is not good management. Our hospital administrators Rodney Miller and Gregory Calliste are showing every sign that they can manage our hospitals professionally. We should give them a fighting chance by letting them do their job as they know how to do it.

That means we should create a territory in which the majority of the people have the dignity and security that comes from having a health insurance card. When the hospital knows it will be paid for services rendered, it can do a better job. This is common sense.

Last year, we were able to offer CIGNA-style coverage to all the employed persons of the territory, regardless of pre-existing conditions, for $100 per month. Employers were required to match that $100. The coverage could be extended to spouses and children, under affordable terms. But the legislation was not passed.

The Universal Health Insurance bill was so well-conceived that some states are now in process of adopting plans based on what we created here. How ironic that our own people do not get the benefit!

It was a great disappointment that this bill stalled after June 2006. I had at least one call per week from constituents whose families wanted the opportunity to be insured, but could not afford it at the going rate of $1,200 per month. Often these individuals had fallen ill with non-life threatening diseases. They could receive no treatment from the hospital until their condition became life-threatening, which then makes them eligible under V.I. law.

Fellow Virgin Islanders, the need to give each man, woman and child the dignity and security that comes with having a health insurance card is crystal clear to me. It requires some restructuring. It requires that both employers and employees pay about $100 per month, or alternatively that the government taxes subsidize this cost. And in return, they get the best health care that modern medicine can offer, up to $1 million, if needed. There is no better investment!

I am no longer in the senate, but I hope that someone will take up the banner and carry it forward.

Craig Barshinger
(former Senator-at-Large)