Kerry addresses health care costs
ERIE, Pa. (AP) -- Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry opened a four-state tour addressing the nation's health care problems Monday, starting with Pennsylvania, which has more than 1 million uninsured residents.
While Pennsylvania still has the 15th lowest rate of uninsured, based on the most recent Census data, state officials say those statistics are outdated. The Pennsylvania Insurance Department has launched a new study to determine who is uninsured and why.
The cost of health insurance last year surpassed the traditional bogeyman of business taxes as the top concern of business owners, according to a recent survey by the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, which has about 10,000 members.
"This is our No. 1 legislative priority for 2004," said Lesley Smith, spokeswoman for the group.
Business owners and the chamber say soaring health insurance costs have had a direct impact on hiring decisions and may be keeping unemployment unnaturally high even though business has begun to pick up.
At Erie Sports Store, a family business that opened more than 50 years ago, employees have always been offered health coverage. But owner Rich Weber said rising costs are a problem.
"I would have to say it (health-care costs) is our top concern when considering hiring for full-time positions," Weber said. "I think it is just not talked about that much. For some small businesses, there is nothing bigger; and at some level for all business, it is hurting employment because you just can't hire."
There are 1.38 million in Pennsylvania who do not have health insurance, according to the Census, with some of the highest rates in northwestern Pennsylvania, where Kerry spoke yesterday and not far from Weber's two sports stores and warehouse.
On the other end of the state, Philadelphia is well above the state average of 11.9 percent who told the state Health Department that they have no insurance. Of the 1,434 people surveyed, 16.3 percent said they did not have any coverage.
The counties in northcentral Pennsylvania have an uninsured rate of 17.4 percent, the worst in the state, according to the Health Department survey.
The Census found that between 2000 and 2002, the percentage of people in Pennsylvania without insurance climbed from 9.2 percent to 11.3 percent; the national average rose from 14.6 to 15.2 percent.
"Here in the Erie area, you're seeing plants close down that provided good jobs and it is happening all across America -- jobs rushing overseas, good jobs and quality health care for their employees disappearing," Kerry said.
Kerry said he would force the federal government to negotiate for cheaper prescription drugs and reduce inefficiencies that he says have buried doctors and patients in paperwork.
Yet a number of business owners said they feared increased government involvement in health care would increase their costs.
Syst-A-Matic Tool and Design nearly went bankrupt several years ago as companies shifted work overseas and insurance costs rose. Bill Hills, president of the company, cut his staff from 60 to 25, where it remains today.
He said tax cuts have helped, but government involvement in health care would make it worse.
"That's the problem with this economy," he said. "We are getting the business but we aren't getting the backlog we need before we start hiring. The cost of health care is out of control."
Those costs have been passed to employees, according to the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.
Last year, 37 percent of members responding to a survey said they had increased the share paid by employees for health care. This year, that figure is up to 46.2 percent, according to the chamber.