That is the title of a commentary in the Houston Chronicle this week about the health insurance crisis in Texas. Senator Cornyn seems to be focusing on the wrong part of the health care crisis, and is missing the big picture.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn told the Greater Houston Pachyderm Club this week that Texas is a national model for improving access to health care.
I know the Republican junior senator is running for re-election, but frankly, his race against Democratic state Rep. Rick Noriega isn’t competitive enough for Cornyn to make such imaginative pronouncements on the stump.
In a story by my colleague Alan Bernstein, Cornyn argued that because voters approved a 2003 measure limiting damage awards against doctors in malpractice cases, Texas has become a model for creating greater access to quality health care.
“So, you have to understand what I mean when I say I want to make Washington, D.C., and the rest of our country more like Texas (because), frankly, we know the policies that actually work,” the senator said.
Doctors may indeed be seeing lower insurance rates, making it easier for them to keep their practices open and specialize in high-risk care. And there’s certainly evidence from the backlog in the state’s processing of medical licenses that doctors and medical school grads from other states are beating down the door to practice here.
Worst rate in nation
But malpractice issues are a small scab on Texas’ ailing health care system.
The cancer is the number of uninsured. Increasing the number of doctors and specialties only does so much good when many Texans can’t afford to make an appointment.
Texas has the worst uninsured rate — one in four residents — in the nation. The number of Texans without health insurance was 5.7 million in 2006, and that number is expected to grow when the latest census figures are released later this month. The percentage of Texans under 65 with employer-sponsored coverage, 54.4 percent, is 8 percentage points below the national average.
But those are just statistics. If Cornyn wanted to put a face on the issue, and face up to the real access to health care crisis in this state, he need only walk around the Texas Medical Center for a few hours.
He might meet 40-year-old tax administrator Kaylon Winfield, who had to drop her private insurance when the premiums got too high. So, what does she do if she gets sick?
“Trust in the Lord,” Winfield said as she walked with her mother to catch a bus after a doctor’s appointment. “Go to the emergency room, and just go to the doctor and try to pay the bill out of your pocket.”
Two years ago, she had to go to the ER for strep throat. She’s been lucky not to have any major medical issues.
“If I needed surgery, I wouldn’t be able to afford it. I’d just have to crawl up somewhere and die,” she says with a sad laugh.
Barbara Linky of Santa Fe has been there. The 61-year-old, who was waiting for her daughter outside Memorial Hermann’s Heart and Vascular Institute, has been told she needs surgery on her bladder. But without insurance, she has no way to afford it, so she endures painful difficulties every day simply using the restroom.
She said she lost her insurance a few years ago when she was let go from her retail job of 18 years after an injury. Her 64-year-old husband has cancer and also diabetes, which requires expensive medication and devices to keep under control. To pay for health costs, they’ve stopped running the air conditioner and the dryer and planted a garden to feed themselves. They’re living off savings they had put aside for their burials.
“Where is it at?” Linky asks when I tell her about the improved access to health care in Texas. “I’ll go there.”
Thursa Kimbrell, 46, who is self-employed, doing work for a BBQ catering company and a company that purchases food supplies for Port of Houston ships, can’t afford insurance either.
She says it’s frustrating knowing that Houston is home to some of the best hospitals in the country when they’re not really open to her.
“If you go through the county process or the state process and you don’t have medical insurance, you’re on the waiting list from hell,” she told me, adding that she recently waited 10 hours in a local ER with a kidney stone before leaving. “To get simple tests, sometimes it’s three or four months.”
Even those who have insurance say access isn’t guaranteed.
“I have it, and it’s a rip-off,” said 50-year-old Bailey Isham of the East Texas town of Gary as he and his family had lunch while visiting his father-in-law, a diabetic who suffered a heart attack.
Isham’s mother-in-law, Sue Creamer, 60, said even though her husband has Medicare, they won’t be able to afford his medications, which total up to $900 a month, much longer. She struggles to pay for her own insurance coverage, which she said costs $449 a month and carries a whopping $3,000 deductible for each medical occurrence.
“It’s ridiculous, is what it is,” she says. “If you break your leg, and next week you break a toe, you have to pay two different deductibles.”
The faces of the health care crisis are on every corner of the largest medical center in the world. For the most part, the uninsured are on the outside looking in.
If Texas is a model, the crisis in this country is deeper than any of us realize.