Sunday, April 4, 2004

Top medical worry: paying the bills

Local survey reflects fears of rising costs

By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Photos by Meggan Booker

Hazel Griffith
Hazel Griffith, 91, waits in Dr. Randall Fick's office in Springdale. Medicare pays for treatment by the chiropractor up to 46 times a year. But other costs, especially medications, squeeze her fixed-income budget.

(Meggan Booker photo)
We still trust our doctors. Our hospitals get the job done. But the rising costs of health care have spiraled into a crisis for many.

Even Greater Cincinnatians with good health insurance express a gnawing lack of confidence in the system. Working families and retirees fear losing their benefits. Seniors struggle with prescription drug costs. Younger people predict that the programs their taxes support now won't be there for them when they get older.

An Enquirer survey of more than 600 Greater Cincinnati adults, polled in January, provides one of the best accountings yet of the region's health-care concerns. It shows that nine of 10 of us are covered by health insurance, which we mostly rate as excellent or good. It shows we think highly of our hospitals, doctors, specialists and nurses.

But the survey underscores worries that costs are growing out of reach - if they aren't already. At a time when America is enjoying unprecedented advances in medicine, many of us are asking: What good is the world's best health care if we can't afford it?

"It's getting to the place where only rich people can afford health care," says Mary Ponder, a Forest Park wife and mother of two children, 11 and 9.

Her family is lucky. The Ponders have a health plan that pays about 90 percent of their health bills, which have mostly amounted to routine doctor visits for occasional illnesses. Many plans pay 80 percent or less.

"Our family tries to stay healthy," Ponder says. Still, "The price seems to continually go up."

Ponder's worries are echoed in the Enquirer survey. According to residents of Hamilton, Butler, Warren and Clermont counties in Ohio and Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties in Kentucky:

• 75 percent worry about increases in paycheck deductions for health benefits.

• 57percent fear more cuts are coming to their health coverage.

• 57 percent think the region's health care system is in a "crisis."

• Fears over rising costs beat out all other health-care concerns 2-to-1 when people were asked their No. 1 worry.

Batavia residents Shawn and Amy Jones are among those feeling the health-care cost squeeze.

Shawn, a 37-year-old auto mechanic, proudly launched his own business two years ago. Yet the costs of health insurance have soared beyond his ability to pay.

Going without health insurance isn't an option for the Jones family. Their 13-year-old daughter Casey has juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic condition that requires regular medical care.

So in an extreme disruption to their family life, Amy works the night shift at Airborne Express, loading freight planes destined for Canada. The only reason she took the job: the health benefits.

Coverage that Amy gets for about $90 a month through a large employer would have cost Shawn at least $300 a month to buy as a small businessman. There's no way he can afford the coverage for himself, much less for his one part-time employee.

"For me to do that, it would pretty much put an end to Jones Truck and Auto Care," he says.

Shawn and Amy believe deeply in taking care of their needs without asking for help from charities or the government. Yet as much as he distrusts government intrusions, Shawn says the health care industry needs outside help.

"I'm not so sure I'm for a public health care system. But I'm for something that would make health care more affordable," he says.

Part 2: Cost frustration - As costs rise, Greater Cincinnatians are finding plenty of blame to go around.


Paying the bills
The rising costs of health care have spiraled into a crisis.
Full survey results
Return to special report front

Healthy lives, lower premiums
Most favor penalties for smokers, fat people and those who don't take care of themselves.
Employers offer incentives
Editorial: Don't blame others

A common fear
These families share a worry about the cost of health care.
Small business owner
Young professional
Living with chronic illness
Union worker
Concerned senior
Retired executive
More stories

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