Friday, March 31, 2000
Houston, Texas
Volume 65, Issue 123

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Vigil protests plight of uninsured citizens

By Juliana Coutinho
Daily Cougar Staff

Occasional ambulance sirens mixed with protesting voices during Wednesday evening's "Candlelight Vigil for the Uninsured," held in front of Ben Taub General Hospital.

The vigil, led by the American Medical Student Association, was the first of a series of protests throughout the country. About 50 people joined the medical students in proposing a national health care plan.

"The plan basically states that everyone would go to a doctor, present a driver's license and be treated," said Lauren Oshman, trustee at large of the AMSA and a second-year medical student at Baylor College of Medicine.

The proposal calls for standard medical services, preventive care and family members to automatically be covered with an average cost of 2 percent of families' average incomes.

"Health care is expensive," said Edli Colberg, a member of the Texas Health and Human Service Commission. "Personally, I think that it is a very ambitious plan."

According to a 1999 THHS estimate, 835,000 people in Harris County -- 26 percent of the county's population -- are uninsured. Oshman said the county has the highest percentage of uninsured citizens in Texas.

Travis Howell/The Daily Cougar

About 50 people gathered outside Ben Taub General Hospital on Wednesday evening to call for a national health care plan. Statistics show 26 percent of Harris County residents do not have health insurance.

Most of the uninsured are between age 18 and 24, census figures indicate. In 1998, 41 percent of people in that age group did not have insurance.

"This follows national trends," said Dianne Longley, an insurance director of the Texas Department of Insurance. "The main reason people do not have health insurance is clearly because they cannot afford it."

The two largest government health care services are Medicare, a federal program for the elderly, and Medicaid, a partnership with states that benefits children from low-income families, pregnant women and the disabled.

In addition, the Childrens' Health Insurance Program will begin in April and is aimed at some 400,000 uninsured children in Texas.

CHIP will target children below the poverty line and younger than 19 who do not qualify for Medicaid. Colberg said 200,000 children are expected to be covered by CHIP by the end of the fiscal year.

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, is a member of the Blue Ribbon Panel on the Uninsured, an insurance task force created by the state.

"We are looking for a program that covers those with higher income who don't qualify for Medicaid," Coleman said.

Whatever the means, something should be done to fix the existing health care system, said Baylor vice president Arthur Garson.

"You get invaded by a foreign country, you get help. If your house catches on fire, you get help. If you're sick, you don't get help," Garson said. "Our health care system is lousy."

AMSA noted that the United States is the only industrialized country that provides no national health insurance. Other countries have had such plans for years -- Germany, for example, enacted its national health plan in 1883.

Still, Coleman said government planning can only accomplish so much. The remainder of the work must be done by individuals.

"All we can do is the brain work," Coleman said. "People have to want a change."

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