Health care takes center stage at marathon hearing

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They filled the sidewalk in front of the Bronx Library Center in Fordham last week, carrying signs and chanting their displeasure with the current health coverage system in the state.

“What do we want? Health care! When do we want it? Now!”

That was the scene outside of the latest hearing on the proposed New York Health Act led by state Sen. Gustavo Rivera, taking place in a borough that is known as New York’s unhealthiest.

The megaphone-enhanced chants could be heard from East Kingsbridge Road to inside the library, where Rivera and Assemblyman Richard Gottfried were set to host the 10-hour hearing.

“I have been working on this bill for 27 years,” Gottfriend said. “Except for people whose job it is to defend the current system, nobody has ever told me that they love their health coverage, or they love their deductibles, or co-pays and their restricted provider networks.”

That bill, the New York Health Act, shares similarities with Medicare and Canada’s current health care system. But lawmakers and advocates pushing this single-payer option through says what they’ve put together is better.

The legislation is designed to provide comprehensive, universal health coverage for everyone in New York, replacing private insurance, according to the Campaign for New York Health. The law creating it has been introduced once again in Albany, but sits in committee.

It’s not much different from the Medicare for all plan introduced by presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren that is intended to make high medical costs a thing of the past. Yet, where Warren’s team has struggled with crafting a blueprint for such a plan — especially when it comes to financing — Gottfried says his bill would be paid for through the New York Health Trust Fund, which would hold money from a variety of sources to be used solely for health care.

Inside the library, the marathon hearing featured testimony from physicians, advocates and patients. It also included some who had serious concerns about New York Health, like Assemblyman Andrew Raia, a Long Island Republican, who says he’s been working with his senate counterparts to help improve health coverage.

Yet, his words weren’t well received, as some cheers turned into jeers, and one attendee actually shouting the Assemblyman down, declaring health care as a human right, and not something politicians should bargain with.

Dr. Mitchell Katz, chief executive of NYC Health + Hospitals, called the current health care system a disservice to patients.

“I get to see from a systematic level to the patient room why we need a single-payer system,” Katz told the panel of politicians. “A single-payer system would allow me to care for patients and (spend) less time filling out forms and fighting insurance companies.”

Right now, doctors and hospitals have to negotiate prices and coverage separately with each insurance company, creating a number of separate rules those in the medical profession must follow.

In fact, it was one of those rules he said led to a Bronx hospital turning away an unresponsive 3-year-old with a 103-degree fever because the insurance company was not going to pay the hospital.

Others had stories as well, like Clarke Copeland who relayed the struggles a co-worker had finding a home health aide with her current insurance. Because she was forced to downgrade her insurance, Copeland said she received the benefits of a such an aid for just 15 hours a week compared to the previous 50 she got before.

“Why did she have to do all this when her primary care physician was the one that recommended she needed to have longer hours during the week?” Copeland asked.

A number of newly elected state lawmakers over the past year — including state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi — rode in on a campaign promise to pass the New York Health Act. However, there have been some bumps in the road in how such a program would be implemented, and how it would be financed.

Critics of the plan call it socialized medicine that will make it harder for people to seek the health care they need, while many give up insurance plans they like. Others feel it could bankrupt the state, as tax dollars would not be enough to keep up with high medical costs and long-term care.

Still, Copeland looked at what’s happening right now to his co-worker, especially after she was denied orthopedic physical therapy recommended by her physician, but not covered under her current plan. She ultimately got rid of her phone, he said, so she could have enough money to pay her prescriptions.

“That is not right,” Copeland said. “All New Yorkers should have the coverage we need to live a healthy life.”

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