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Heather Cody, an Idaho Falls mental health therapist, had to travel more than 7,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean to get medical treatment.

As a newly minted mental health therapist in her early 40s, Medicaid recipients were the bulk of Cody’s business. When the agency she worked for decided to stop accepting Medicaid, she took a part-time hospital job where she worked toward getting benefits and her clinical licensure. When patient loads declined, she was put on-call and her hours drastically reduced.

Knowing the risk, she’d paid for medical coverage for her children, but not herself. About two years ago, she was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in her right hip which required a $60,000 hip replacement.

“I got pretty depressed, really. … I didn’t feel very helpful to my tribe,” she said. “I reached out to friends and it was hard. It’s hard to admit you’re not doing well and need help.”

Desperate, she discovered “medical tourism” – an industry that helps those with medical problems travel to foreign countries for cheaper care. She signed up for Medtral, a medical travel firm based in Auckland, New Zealand.

Cost of the hip replacement would be around $23,000, including air travel from San Francisco to New Zealand, lodging, physiotherapy, anesthetic and an apartment. All she’d have to cover was food and activities.

Cody took the chance and is expected to return from New Zealand this week.

“I don’t understand why it is so expensive [in the U.S.],” she said. “When I went in to see the doctors they didn’t spend much time with me and then I’m out the door. I just felt ripped off. … The prices are so extreme there’s just no way you can consider having [treatment]. I would have had to sell everything I had… then what kind of life do we have? It’s just so out of the ballpark of what’s possible.”

Cody’s frustration is shared by business owners around the country. About four weeks ago a small delegation from the Idaho Main Street Alliance showed up in Washington D.C. to talk about health care reform and changes in the health insurance system.

The alliance is made up of more than 300 small business owners from around the state who view health care as a primary concern. They support a public health insurance option because they think it will give them more choices and increase transparency in the system.

“According to a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, insurance premiums increased six times faster than wages over the last nine years,” said alliance executive director Nancy Snodgrass. “…The choice of a public health insurance plan as part of comprehensive reform will force private health insurance companies to compete and guarantee affordable coverage will be there for everyone.”

As the debate continues in Congress and the White House, Idaho officials are entering the fray. Last week Idaho House Minority Leader John Rusche of Lewiston, a physician, told reporters it is imperative to fix the nation’s health care system. “It’s too costly, it’s unavailable to lots of people and it’s the leading cause of individual bankruptcies,” he said during a phone interview.

Idaho U.S. Rep. Walt Minnick, a Democrat, has taken aim at the public option measure, saying it would make “‘big government’ the nation’s dominant insurance company.” He and other Blue Dog Democrats have also been critical of what they see as the current Democrat-backed proposal’s emphasis on expanding coverage rather than reducing costs.

“And the bill does nothing to train more doctors, while at the same time raising taxes and adding billions to our national debt, something Idahoans rightly will not stand for in these tough times,” Minnick stated.

Idaho U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, a Republican, has also issued statements critical of the public option, calling it “another absurdly expensive government bureaucracy” that will do little to solve the crises of cost of and access. Like Minnick, Simpson emphasized the need for more doctors and the sense that adding a “massive new tax burden” will hinder rather than help small businesses.

Representatives from the Idaho Main Street Alliance, however, said failing to pass reform this year would be costlier to their businesses than a public option insurance measure.

“As a small business owner, I need health care reform and I need it as soon as possible,” said Jerry Simonson, owner of the Talk Shop in Rigby. “Right now, we have no good choices for health care. This proposal will give us new choices and new bargaining power. As small businesses, we need that. The cost we really can’t afford is the cost of doing nothing.” Comment on this story::

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