Merkley says health care deal likely by year’s end

Sen. Jeff Merkley predicted Friday that Congress will create a health care reform package by Christmas that will pool participants and increase competition among insurers to reduce health care costs.

During a conversation with three people in Medford, the Oregon Democrat said a government-managed public insurance program “remains the big question” of the reform package.

The participants were selected on the basis of their interest and knowledge of the issue and personal experiences with health care to reflect a cross section of Oregonians, said Marc Siegel, Merkley’s assistant director of communications.

Speaking at the offices of Ogden Roemer Wilkerson Architecture, Merkley said for him to vote for a reform package, it would have to give every American “a high-quality variety of plans with increased competition to drive down costs, and it would need a robust public option.”

David Wilkerson, a partner in the architecture firm, told Merkley that health-insurance coverage is his company’s second largest expense after payroll.

Wilkerson told Merkley his sister died because she changed jobs, couldn’t afford to buy medicines and tried to get by on over-the-counter products.

“She got bronchitis,” Wilkerson said. “It killed her. She left two children. If she’d had proper health care, she’d still be alive. She was trying to make ends meet and it had tragic results.”

Mark Kellenbeck of Grants Pass, chief operating officer of Cascade Management, a real estate management company, said his insurance costs have risen 120 percent in 10 years, and he writes a $70,000 check every month to insure 209 employees.

“Seven years ago we had a $500 deductible. Now it’s $2,000. (Health insurance) has a big adverse impact on us. In that period, the premiums still went up 70 percent.”

Karen Jeffrey of Ashland, a writer, said the only insurance available to her because of pre-existing conditions (cancer and a broken hip) had premiums of $500 to $700 per month and deductibles of $5,000 to $10,000 per year.

Jeffrey said she’s presently uninsured and waiting for Medicare to kick in five months down the road.

“We’re clearly at a crisis in this country,” she said. “We’re just not going to be able to cover the cost.” People are choosing not to pay to take care of themselves, Kellenbeck said, with the result that they are “impounding” the cost of ailments that will have to paid for later at higher costs.

Merkley noted that more than half of bankruptcies are caused by unpaid medical bills and “a lot of those (people) were insured, but after a lifetime of paying premiums, they realized they’d passed their lifetime limit with only a week in the hospital.”

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