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Solving the Problem: Mike Smith, an organizer of the healthcare crisis conference, wants to look deeper.

Health-wise

A conference tackles the troubling healthcare crisis

By Joy Lanzendorfer

In July, 600 more patients will find themselves scrambling for healthcare. As part of a $3 million budget shortfall, three mental health clinics in Guerneville, Cloverdale, and Petaluma will close. Though 10 clinics remain open and some in-home services will fill the gap, it's likely that with the closures, many patients will not get the treatment they need.

The closures are the latest in the continuing erosion of Sonoma County's healthcare services. Six hundred mentally ill people lose access to care here; 600 elderly people lose health services there; an abortion clinic closes here; employees can no longer afford higher insurance rates there. Each new problem is another cut into the already limping system, which continues to stumble forward like some gasping giant ready to fall.

"People in this county need to look at whether they want a First World or Third World healthcare system," says Skip Robinson, Ph.D., a lecturer in psychology at Sonoma State University. "Sonoma County is among the top 10 richest counties in California. We can afford to do the right thing with our healthcare."

But there seems no end in sight for healthcare troubles. Not only are the same problems still here--hospitals are struggling, personnel is hard to come by, costs are rising--but now the bad economy and state budget crisis are making things worse. In an effort to combat these problems, SSU and Santa Rosa Junior College will be holding a two-day healthcare conference May 9 and 10 at SSU. It will be a follow-up to the conference held at SRJC last October.

"At the first conference, we described the problems but didn't go into how to solve them," says Mike Smith, a conference organizer. "In this conference, we will go in-depth and look at possible solutions."

A series of panels will cover the different issues. Speakers include legislators, medical professionals, labor representatives, professors, businesspeople, researchers, and others.

One panel will look at promoting prevention, one of the most cost-efficient practices in medicine. Many diseases can be lessened or avoided altogether through ongoing treatment and lifestyle changes. Though prevention can sometimes be expensive to set up or maintain, that cost is usually much lower than when health problems are left to fester.

For example, closing the three mental health clinics may decrease costs for the state now but may cost more in the long run if some mental illnesses go untreated. "It's penny wise and pound foolish," says Robinson. "If the board of supervisors did a study of the increased price of incarceration, legal proceedings, and hospital stays from untreated mental illnesses, they would find those costs to be much higher than running the clinics."

The forum will also look at legislative solutions to the healthcare crisis, ranging from statewide or national healthcare systems to different taxes. Some of the local taxes that have been suggested include a sales or parcel tax to prevent the closing of the clinics, and a trauma tax to save emergency rooms and help small hospitals.

New taxes are notoriously difficult to pass. Still, some communities have taxed themselves to help their healthcare system. In 2002, Los Angeles passed a trauma tax by 73 percent to save their emergency rooms.

"Everyone said that tax wouldn't pass, but it did," says Smith. "Sometimes people will spend money to save healthcare."

Another panel will look at improving healthcare access for the elderly. Sutter plans to close its Senior Center, which treats more than 600 patients. On top of that, the collapse of Health Plan of the Redwoods that led to huge increases in insurance rates and a reduction in Medicare benefits has deeply affected local seniors.

"Healthcare is the primary concern among the elderly," says Shirlee Zane, executive director of the Council on Aging. "It's getting harder to find good physicians who take on the elderly patients unless they have private insurance."

The panel will discuss regulating major drug companies and the cost of medication and changing Sonoma County's Medicare status from rural to urban so that Medicare reimbursement will rise, among other solutions.

Though everyone agrees it's difficult to change parts of the healthcare system, it's gotten to the point that something needs to be done.

"At this point, the state of our healthcare is a deep shame on our community," says Robinson. "We have to go in these directions and ask these questions. It's the moral thing to do."


The Health Care Crisis in Sonoma County conference takes place May 9-10, 9am-5pm at the Cooperage on the Sonoma State University campus. The $10 donation includes lunch and refreshments. In addition to Zane, Robinson, and Smith, other speakers include Lynn Woolsey, Jack Burrows, Gil Ojeda, and Dale Iverson. For more information, call 800.464.7717 or visit www.sonoma.edu/programs/healthcrisis.

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From the May 8-14, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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