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Polk County Update -- LAKELAND

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LAKELAND | Since having a stroke three years ago, Kathleen Artlip has struggled to get affordable, comprehensive health insurance.

She had coverage through the county's Polk HealthCare Plan for uninsured county residents. But cutbacks in the tax-funded program made her ineligible.

Coverage through her husband's job would cost $1,000 a month for the two of them. A private plan she contacted offered coverage for $329 a month, but only if she took its highest deductible of $3,500.

Sandy Swanson and her adult son have the same battle. He has epilepsy and sometimes has major seizures that affect his ability to get a job.

'He can't purchase health insurance anywhere in the United States,' Swanson said Monday night at a Lakeland meeting held to collect input on health care for the Obama-Biden Transition Project. About 60 people attended.

Swanson had a stroke 10 years ago and has diabetes. When her husband lost his job at a company that had family coverage, they paid $1,600 a month to extend that coverage on a private basis.

Getting individual health insurance when you have a pre-existing condition was a major concern raised at the meeting. Other concerns were the impact of uninsured people on hospitals, improper use of emergency care, whether a single payer system is the solution, tort reform, the cost of prescription drugs and concern about cuts in Medicare.

While the issues raised aren't new, people who spoke put a local focus on national problems.

In guidelines sent to local organizers, the project team said Obama thinks the health-care system must: Improve health-care quality and cut costs, Expand coverage and access, Increase the emphasis on primary care and prevention.

People come to emergency departments for treatment they should be getting as primary care in doctors' offices, said Dr. Greg White, medical director of Polk County Emergency Medical Services, who organized the local meeting.

Some who have insurance do that for convenience. Others do it because they don't have other choices. White, also an emergency medicine physician at several Florida hospitals, discussed a 34-year-old woman who came to an emergency department 21 times, at $3,000 a visit, with chronic abdominal pain.

CT scans couldn't diagnose the problem. Two years went by before a private doctor agreed to do a free laparoscopic exam that diagnosed endometriosis, which then got treated.

Swanson, executive director of a program that matches volunteer doctors with uninsured patients, sees similar situations. She had a woman who went to a hospital 20 times with allergic reactions until the We Care program got her treatment from an allergist.

Seventy percent of calls to 911 are for nonemergency cases, White said, recalling a toddler, giggling and alert, who came to a hospital emergency department by ambulance with a fever of 100.7. The only treatment he needed, which he got, was 'a $1,000 Tylenol.'

Several people at the meeting said money is available to provide broader health coverage, but that it isn't being spent appropriately. Some suggested pooling insurance programs to provide coverage to a broader group of people while spreading the risk. No consensus was reached on whether that should be done privately or through government.

Marge Keck, who directs Lakeland Regional Medical Center's emergency program, said a uniform health system is needed. What she doesn't want is one set up like a health maintenance organization.

'HMOs keep people from getting into health care,' she said.

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