Much like Congress, Santa Ynez Valley residents are divided on the best way to improve the current health care system in America.

President Obama’s push for Congress to overhaul health care to reduce the number of uninsured Americans is considered long-overdue by some but burdensome and reckless by others.

Proponents of a universal health care system point to the number of uninsured Americans. Census Bureau data released in 2006 found that California has the nation’s fourth lowest level of medical insurance, with 21.3 percent of residents under age 65 lacking coverage. Santa Barbara County had the lowest level of health insurance, with 26.6 percent of those under 65 uninsured.

Opponents say they are concerned about getting less coverage and seeing more delays in a health care system run by bureaucrats.

Anne Curtis, 74, of Solvang, called the current health care system a failure.

“It’s outrageous that this supposedly strong country hasn’t done anything in all the past years to make health care available to everyone,” she said.

Buellton resident Peter Bowker is struggling to digest the details of the president’s massive overhauls, but in principle he adamantly opposes any health care plan that seeks to cover all Americans.

“I see it as part of our rights being dumped down the tube,” he said. “This is a capitalistic society, and if you’re able to pay for it, you can have it.”

 

Horror stories

Bowker acknowledged that the health care system has kinks (“there should be caps on premiums”), but he said it’s light-years better than what is currently being mulled in Congress.

“There are horror stories with the health care systems in Canada and (Great) Britain,” he said. “Just look at our own experiment in Massachusetts. It’s already bankrupted the state.”

The 54-year-old added that he is worried about the quality of health care when it’s time for him to retire.

“Twenty-five percent of Medicaid will be spent in the last quarter of your life, and I don’t want some bureaucrat making a decision about whether I need an operation or not,” he said.

Jens Faarbech, 82, of Solvang, said he was pleased with the coverage he had received for most of his life in his native country of Denmark.

“If you got sick, all you had to do was show your identification card to get care,” he said. “In this country, you can get coverage if you have a decent job. The rich people say the current system is fantastic. But it’s not very good for the less fortunate.”

Janine Blum, caucus chair for the 3rd District Santa Barbara County Republican Party, said the government should not hold all the cards when it comes to a person’s doctor visit. She also said extending health care to all Americans is reckless.

“The system has to be policed better and not given indiscriminately to everybody,” she said. “It’s like when they gave money to the banks with no strings attached, and they didn’t know what to do with it. It’s the same with health care. People who receive health care should be able to qualify for what they get.”

 

Private sector

Critics also fear the government plan could dominate the market and undercut private options.

Attorney Mike Stoker, who is running for the 35th District Assembly seat, is one of the detractors.

“The bottom line is that any plan that has a public option from the get-go or over time will get rid of the private sector plan,” he said.

The “public option,” the centerpiece of Obama’s agenda, would create a national insurance program. But it has been pegged a political nonstarter because it faces stiff opposition from Republicans and has caused a rift between Democrats and moderates.

“A government plan will set lower rates and ration what’s given, and at the end of the day, there will be a transitioning period to a single-payer system,” Stoker bemoaned. “It’s very troubling.”

Stoker recently went to Washington, D.C. with a delegation of agricultural leaders organized by the United Agribusiness League to urge lawmakers to reject plans calling for a mandated employer-paid health insurance. They were also there to help refocus the debate from a government-run insurance plan to health care cooperatives.

The league is one of two business associations licensed in California to administer health plans and provide health insurance to member employees. Forty thousand farm workers are covered under its cooperative, Stoker said.

Stoker said association health plans give employees more leverage to bargain with insurance companies, driving down medical costs in the process.

“It’s ironic that the very same people who claim they want everyone to have coverage don’t support a lot of things the private sector can do to provide health care services to more people,” Stoker said, warning that the Democrats would raise taxes on the middle-class once they took over health care.

 

Competition

Theresa V. Laursen, of Santa Ynez, said that private health care is already dying by its own device.

“The model is not working because it’s solely profit-driven,” she said. The industry is so opposed to a government-run plan because they would not be able to meet the standards of the competition. So much of the private market’s money goes to different departments and overhead.”

Rep. Lois Capps, a former nurse and a member who sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee that approved a health care reform bill July 31, said a public option would only drive out private insurers if their plans were inferior to the public option — contradicting claims that the marketplace provides the best quality health care.

“There’s two ways we can go about getting insurance companies to lower their costs,” Capps told the Journal. “We could start regulating the insurance companies, telling them what to do. Or we can engender competition into the market place.”

Capps acknowledged that the public plan may have its drawbacks — longer waits for surgeries, for example — but maintained it was the most sensible approach to improving health care.

“Insurance programs cost too much,” she said. “And with costs steadily rising, people who have plans that they like are concerned. People lose jobs and then get sick and find out they’re not covered for a procedure. We have millions of people banking on not getting into an accident or getting an illness and ending up in the emergency room.”

Two Valley residents say their professions have helped shape their views on health care reform.

As an assistant manager for a government-run welfare center in New York, Robert Colino, 78 and now retired, became cynical about whether the government can run a universal health care system.

“Everyone that didn’t have health insurance would see doctors two or three times a week as part of their social life,” he said. “And we would have to pay for every visit. People would flood in complaining about broken eyelashes and hangnails. And all day long they’d dial for things that were not serious problems.”

Colino said he has never had insurance coverage and called those who want it from the government “socialites” because they have nothing better to do than seek medical care for non-existent health conditions.

Oscar Colunga, 60, has worked for 40 years as a respiratory care practitioner. He said a health care system that could cover everyone would be “impossible,” but he sees a broken system that needs repairing.

“When I see people tell me they have to decide whether to buy groceries or their medicine, that’s saddens me,” he said. It’s sad how we in America bow down to the dollar.”

“Health care costs a lot of money. Pharmaceutical, medical equipment companies, insurance companies — they all want a piece of pie. So the mentality is, ‘Yes, we can be sympathetic. That’s too bad, and I wish it were different.’ But at the end it’s, ‘Did the check get in the mail and into the bank account?’”

Colunga said costs can be driven down if the government treats health care reform like it did with the auto industry.

“They called those guys in and told them to get their act straight,” he said. “Restructuring is the way to do business. We certainly don’t want to carelessly throw money at the problem. AIG got a lot of money, but it went to vacation and bonus pay.”

 

Reach Jeremy Foster at jfoster@syvjournal.com.