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Health Forum Airs Chronic Questions



Published: Sunday, March 13, 1994

HESITATINGLY, 65-year-old Gloria Goff, a resident of this city, stepped up to the microphone and told a panel of four United States Representatives that the cost of her arthritis prescriptions was "weighing her down."

Robert Sawyer, a 26-year-old from Chappaqua, told the lawmakers that he was a cancer survivor who was "furious about having to do battle with the insurance companies" to cover the costs of his treatment.

Weighing Varied Proposals

And a Hartsdale resident, Eva Scholle, 34, said she was recovering from a ‘mental illness’ and wanted to know if the health-care proposals being considered in Congress would help her and others similarly afflicted. "We need extra services to manage on a daily basis," she said.

Their questions and comments were part of a litany of anxious complaints and expressions of frustration from an audience of nearly 400 at a town meeting on health-care reform last Sunday at the County Center here.

Some attending the meeting, which was sponsored by the League of Women Voters, argued the pros and cons of different proposals before Congress. Others talked about combating fraud in the medical industry and streamlining bureaucracy. One man, though, walked up to the microphone and told the panel he was just plain angry.

"I represent nobody, or maybe a lot of nobodies," said Thomas Folklif of the Bronx. "And this question is for anyone brave enough to answer it: Why should a license to practice medicine be a license to become rich? And why should a drug company charge dollars for a pill that costs pennies to make?"

While they offered no direct answers, the panel members said they recognized his concerns and would address those issues.

Clinton Plan and Others

The forum, which was called "A Community Conversation: Town Meeting on Health-Care Reform," was also sponsored by Gannett Suburban Newspapers, the Westchester Community Foundation and Cablevision in conjunction with 26 community organizations and agencies. It began with an hour-long explanation of the options being considered in Washington for reforming the nation's health care, including proposals of President Clinton and members of Congress.

Speakers said that in Westchester one of nine residents has no medical insurance, even though the county is one of the wealthiest in the country in terms of per capita income. Nationally, about one in seven people lacks health-care coverage.

Printed material distributed by the League of Women Voters noted that despite the county's apparent high standard of living, there were neighborhoods in Mount Vernon, Peekskill, southwest Yonkers, Ossining, Greenburgh, Elmsford and Mount Pleasant that were federally designated as "medically under-served." For that reason, the national leaders of the League of Women Voters selected Westchester -- which is considered a microcosm of America's diverse health-care patterns -- to be one of 60 sites nationwide included in a series of town meetings with elected officials.

'That's a Given'

The panel of Representatives here included Eliot L. Engel, a Democrat and Liberal from the Bronx; Nita M. Lowey, a Democrat from Harrison; Hamilton Fish Jr., a Republican and Conservative from Millbrook, and Benjamin Gilman, a Republican from Middletown.

Of the four, Mr. Engel was the only one to support President Clinton's Health Security Act, which calls for universal, mandatory coverage by 1998 of all citizens and legal residents who do not receive Medicare through a system of subsidized private group-health insurance administered by states and purchasing alliances.

"We are no longer talking about whether there should be or will be universal health-care coverage," Mr. Engel said. "That's a given. The question is how to best do it."

Ms. Lowey told the audience that she was not yet supporting any one plan but was studying a number of possible solutions.

Mr. Gilman said he, too, was "keeping an open mind" in dealing with a complex issue and was considering the options on how to best serve 37 million Americans who are uninsured. Mr. Gilman, an advocate of preventive health care, officially supports a Republican bill sponsored by Representative Robert H. Michel, the Minority Leader from Illinois. That measure calls for expanded access to private health insurance for those not covered by Medicare.

Mr. Fish, who read from a position paper distributed before the meeting, said in part that he supported insurance and medical malpractice reform but that he objected to the Clinton plan because it calls for $124 million in cuts in the Medicare program. Although Mr. Fish also supports Mr. Michel's bill, he has said that it does not go far enough in providing universal coverage.

Representative Fish came under heavy questioning from an audience that cheered Mr. Engel's pro-Clinton stand. Ms. Lowey was also challenged at one point for not having taken a position. Mr. Gilman left early for another engagement.

Organizations Represented

In one challenge to Mr. Fish, Mildred Kibrick of Somers asked whether the final health-care bill would include "full reproductive health care, including family planning and abortion services."

Mr. Fish, who has opposed Federal financing of abortions in most cases, said, "We are not going to get everything we want, and some things may have to go by the wayside."

But Ms. Lowey said that pregnancy and related services should be part of any health-care reform and that "women shouldn't have to pay extra for their private parts." Her comments drew applause and cheers.

There were also comments during the meeting from people representing organizations.

Winston Ross, regional director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and executive director of the Westchester Community Opportunity Program in Elmsford, said he was advocating universal-health-care coverage for 94,000 low-income people in Westchester who have no coverage.

And Beverly Levine, a former director of the Yonkers Office for Persons With Disabilities, asked the Representatives to consider the needs of the handicapped when drafting health-care legislation.

A version of this article appeared in print on Sunday, March 13, 1994, on section 13WC page 8 of the New York edition.

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