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ANALYSIS — An illuminating expedition to the world of the uninsured

By Wendell Potter | February 17, 2011 | Click here to view his complete post
News analyst Wendell Potter, a former insurance company executive, is the author of Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans.

As Congressional Republicans seek ways to starve the new health care reform law of necessary funding — and Democrats try to keep that from happening — it’s easy to lose sight of the reasons why reform was pursued in the first place.

If they arrived in Nashville by Friday afternoon, those legislators would see an ever-growing line of cars and trucks outside a locked gate at McGavock High School. At midnight, the gate will be opened, enabling the occupants of those cars and trucks to camp out in the parking lot for hours, maybe even days. Many of these folks will have driven hundreds of miles to receive care from doctors and nurses and other caregivers volunteering their time to treat as many people as possible before they all pack up and go home Sunday evening.

Most of the people in those vehicles will get no sleep. They will immediately begin forming a long line in the cold Nashville night in hopes of getting into the high school when it opens at 6 a.m. on Saturday morning. At 3:30 a.m., volunteers from the Tennessee State Guard will help Stan Brock, a 75-year-old British native and former star of the 1960s TV show “Wild Kingdom”, begin handing out numbers to those in line. Only those with a number can get in.

“I will start calling out the numbers, about 50 at a time,” said Brock. “We will get 200 people in there (the school auditorium) pretty quickly, and they will get registered and directed to various stations, depending on their needs. It is hectic for the first two hours. After that, it settles down and runs on auto-pilot.”

Out of curiosity, I decided to go to RAM’s (Remote Area Medical) expedition that July, which was being held over three days at the Wise County, Va. fairgrounds. It changed my life.

Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw when I walked through the fairgrounds gate. I felt as if I had stepped into a movie set or a war zone. Hundreds of people, many of them soaking wet from a morning rain, were waiting in lines that stretched beyond view. As I strolled the fairgrounds, I noticed that some of those lines led to barns and cinder block buildings with row after row of animal stalls, where doctors and nurses were treating patients. And unlike health fairs I had seen in shopping centers and malls, this was a real clinic. Dentists were pulling teeth and filling cavities, optometrists were examining eyes for glaucoma and cataracts, doctors and nurses were doing Pap smears and mammograms, surgeons were cutting out skin cancers, and gastroenterologists were conducting sigmoidoscopies.

I later learned that most of the people being treated had jobs, but their employers did not offer coverage. Many of them had pre-existing conditions and had been told by insurance firms they were not eligible for coverage. They couldn’t buy health insurance at any price. Many others had insurance but were enrolled in plans with such limited benefits or high deductibles that they had to forego care. Even though these people paid premiums, they simply did not have enough money to pay for care they needed before they had met their deductibles. Many Americans are now in plans that have $30,000 annual deductibles.

As I took in the scene that day, I realized that what I was doing for a living was at least partly responsible for making these people stand in long lines to get care that was being provided in horse stalls. I decided that day that I would soon leave my job. A few months later, I did.

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