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Health Insurance Crisis Puts On A Human Face

Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

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The story of Sheila and Bob Wessenberg illustrates how shockingly close to disaster any of us might be without health insurance.

The Wessenbergs and their two children lived in a luxurious town house near Dallas. Bob was a computer programmer earning $107,000 a year - until he was laid off in late 2001. Sheila, diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer, was able to have the lumpectomy and mastectomy she needed before Bob lost his medical coverage.

By the time San Francisco writer Julie Winokur interviewed the Wessenbergs in 2001 for the book "Denied: The Crisis of America's Uninsured" ($15, Talking Eyes Media), Sheila had gone seven months without chemo-therapy or a follow-up exam. The family chose to pay for food and housing rather than increasingly expensive temporary health coverage.

The Wessenbergs' story is one of four from the book that are featured in a photography exhibit at the state Capitol.

"Denied: The Crisis of America's Uninsured," 20 large-format photographs by Ed Kashi, is on display through June 30 in the Eureka Room in the Capitol basement.

Winokur and Kashi, who are married, are founding directors of Talking Eyes Media, a nonprofit multimedia company based in San Francisco that, as Winokur says, "takes on social issues and tries to communicate them in a visually compelling way to advocate for change."

Their previous project was a book, film and photo exhibit called "Aging in America: The Years Ahead."

"We take on pressing social issues that are often (told) on a policy level that goes over our heads," says Winokur, "and put them on a human level: Here's how it impacts people. With the uninsured, we wanted to capture the human toll of this crisis.

"A few things were shocking. One was the fact that so many working people are uninsured. We all are on the cusp. The more you look into the issue, the more you realize this could be your story tomorrow and how catastrophic the problem is. Some 18,000 people die prematurely each year as a result of being uninsured. I liken that to six September 11ths. These are real numbers, and why not throw every ounce of our resources at that?"

A New York doctor told her that the United States already has a nationalized health plan: the emergency room.

It's the one place the uninsured can go for help, but often that help comes too late. With no preventative care - regular checkups - by the time they're on an emergency room gurney, their condition is dire.

"There's no question that we're already hemorrhaging money on the uninsured," says Winokur. "They end up in the emergency room because they can't get care elsewhere. We pay for that with our tax dollars, and those who are insured are paying higher premiums. The money is being spent but not spent well. Is health care a right or a privilege?"

California legislators have been considering that question for some time and, last year, Gov. Gray Davis signed into law a bill requiring employers to either provide medical insurance for their workers or pay into a fund that will. Almost immediately, opponents launched a drive to repeal it.

Meanwhile, the Senate passed SB 921 by Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, which will be heard June 22 by the Assembly health committee.

"SB 921 is a bill that would create universal health care for all Californians," Kuehl says. "All residents would be covered by a rich benefits package, and the total cost of covering all Californians - including our 7 million uninsured and most of the rest of us who are underinsured - would not be any more than what we're now spending on health care."

The number of uninsured Americans has risen from 41 million in 2001, when Winokur and Kashi were researching the "Denied" book, to 43.6 million last year, according to Winokur. The causes include divorce, catastrophic illness, rising premiums and, in the case of Bob Wessenberg, a sudden job loss.

His wife, Sheila, was so desperate to help her family that she once panhandled at a Dallas intersection. She held a can with a small sign attached: "I am not a bum. I'm a mom. Please help." Passers-by gave her $150 in two hours, which she spent on food for her family, rather than medical help for herself.

She has since developed a brain tumor, and her husband has taken a job in Florida while the rest of the family remains in Dallas.

"The health-care crisis is getting worse, and it's climbing up the income scale," says Winokur.

"I think that is surprising to people. Now it's hitting the middle class with a vengeance. It's just shocking that this is going on. You can't even wrap your mind around it."

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