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[whitespace] Mike Smith Health Kick: Mike Smith, a conference organizer, demands that universal healthcare be taken seriously.

Critical Condition

SRJC conference to consider universal healthcare

By Joy Lanzendorfer

The Sonoma County healthcare system is broken. Despite desperate attempts to save it, every year it sinks deeper beneath a mound of seemingly unsolvable problems, which include mounting costs on all sides, a severe personnel shortage, and the ever increasing number of uninsured. The recent collapse of Health Plan of the Redwoods, the second largest HMO in the county, has put even more stress on a system that most agree is not working anymore.

On Oct. 19, a forum on the Sonoma County healthcare crisis at SRJC will look into alternatives to the system as well as discuss solutions to existing problems. Between 150 to 300 people are expected to attend. Speakers will include healthcare professionals, legislators, and educators. The event will be co-sponsored by SRJC, the Children's Healthcare Access Coalition, California's Physicians Alliance, and the SEIU Local 707.

Universal healthcare, a governmental form of healthcare that covers all citizens, will be presented as a new direction for the healthcare industry.

"The U.S. is the only industrialized nation that doesn't offer some form of universal healthcare," says Mike Smith, a former emergency room nurse who organized the conference. "It's a way for everyone to have healthcare coverage. We need to stand up and demand that our legislators and representatives take it seriously."

The conference will devote one of four panels to universal healthcare. Among the speakers is Judy Spelman, legislative director of Healthcare for All, a group heading a statewide coalition for universal healthcare. California legislators are currently drafting a universal healthcare bill, which she is expected to discuss.

"When writing this bill, legislators are looking at how other countries insure their citizens for much less money than we pay for healthcare in this country," said Patricia Souza of the Children's Healthcare Access Coalition. "There are a lot of issues to consider, like how it would preserve quality of care and prevent abuse of the system."

The bill will be introduced to the state senate in January, which might mean California would be the second state to seriously consider universal healthcare after Oregon, which will vote on the issue in November. The Oregon plan would cost $19 billion, more than the entire state budget of $16 billion. If passed, Oregonians will see an 11.5 percent increase in payroll tax for businesses and an increase in personal income tax.

The remaining three panels will be devoted to the current healthcare problems, which are legion. More than ever, people are seeing double-digit rate increases on insurance. Local hospitals are struggling to pay bills and at least three hospitals--Healdsburg, Sonoma Valley, and Palm Drive--are faced with the possibility of collapse. The failure of HPR has flooded the entire system, taxing the resources of even stable entities like Kaiser Permanente.

While Sonoma County has always had a fairly large percentage of uninsured residents, recent events have caused that number to skyrocket. The sour economy is increasing the number of adults and children without insurance. Health Plan of the Redwood's demise left thousands of local residents without healthcare coverage.

And since HPR was a large competitor in the senior market, many of the newly uninsured are elderly people who can't afford to shift to a new plan. It's so bad, some uninsured seniors have to choose between food and medicine, according to Smith.

The personnel shortage will also be a hot topic at the conference. The high cost of living and relatively low pay make it difficult for hospitals to attract and retain doctors, especially specialists. Other employees, from nurses to technicians, are also in demand. SRJC will present its healthcare programs, which range from nursing to technician to medical assistants. For the first time ever this fall, enrollment in SRJC's healthcare program was full.

"We think the increase in students is because of the current economic reality and because many students reexamined their lives after 9-11 and wanted a more meaningful career," says Ezbon Jen, dean of health and life sciences.

The conference will be held on Saturday, Oct. 19, 9am-3:30pm at SRJC's Newman Auditorium. The fee is $10 and includes lunch and materials. 707.545.7349, ext. 111.

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From the October 17-23, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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