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Coverage for All Americans Backed

June 20, 2008

By Andrew M. Seder, The Times Leader, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

Jun. 20–WILKES-BARRE — About a dozen protesters, including nurses and labor leaders, rallied on Public Square on Thursday in support of Medicare-like health insurance for all Americans.

The gathering took place less than a block from the headquarters of Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania, a not-for-profit company some organizers said should be kicked out of the health insurance business for mismanagement and for reaping record profits.

Carl Romanelli of Wilkes-Barre helped organize the noontime rally — one of at least 18 held across the country Thursday to coincide with the annual meeting of America’s Health Insurance Plans in San Francisco.

Two bills in Harrisburg — Senate Bill 300 and House Bill 1660 — could make Pennsylvania the first in the country to essentially create a single-payer, universal health care system, Romanelli said.

If passed, health care insurance companies such as Blue Cross, Geisinger and Aetna would be banned from the industry, leaving the state as sole overseer.

Romanelli said a proposed state-run health industry would do a better and more fiscally prudent job than the existing companies do.

Blue Cross of NEPA had a surplus of $462 million, or approximately $770 for each of the estimated 600,000 subscribers in a 13-county area, at the end of 2007, according to the Pennsylvania Insurance Department.

According to the proposal, all Pennsylvanians, regardless of income or health plan, would have equal access to hospitals, doctors and medication, Romanelli said.

Bill Cruice, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals, said his union supports the proposed state legislation, but cited HR 676, federal legislation that would create a publicly financed, privately delivered health care program that expands and improves on the existing Medicare program.

The Center for Economic Research and Policy’s Dean Baker estimates that bill, if approved as is, would save $387 billion in health care spending annually, while covering every American.

Cruice said he believes the end is near for corporate health insurance companies and had a strong message for Blue Cross.

“How many of you would like to tell Blue Cross and Blue Shield that their claim is being rejected?” he said to applause.

Stan Wielgopolski, a registered nurse from White Haven, said he sees the problem as a health insurance user and as someone who deals with those struggling to pay their health care bills. Holding a placard that said “Patients first not profits,” he said he sees patients enter the emergency room, only to leave because they can’t afford to pay for tests or overnight stays.

Bill Schoen, a spokesman for Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania, issued a statement saying health care issues are “complicated, difficult and worthy of great debate.” He said Blue Cross supports a “serious, substantive discussion of these issues by all stakeholders. Simplistic criticism is not enough.”

Andrew M. Seder, a Times Leader staff writer, may be reached at 570-829-7269.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Times Leader, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

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