Talk to the head

Locals line up to tell their health-care stories to a disembodied filmmaker

Maybe pure curiosity convinced people to put their heads in a box and tell their health-care horror stories.

Maybe pure curiosity convinced people to put their heads in a box and tell their health-care horror stories.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

Insurance companies rarely are considered “edgy,” but that’s the impression Blue Shield of California was going for when its advertising team asked Sacramentans to stick their heads into a video booth and sound off about health care. Across the state, people are being encouraged to tell their horror stories and complain about their health coverage for the cameras.

Themes are emerging, said Sue DeLeeuw, director of corporate advertising for Blue Shield of California: “Affordability is an issue. Being able to get to the right doctor is an issue for people. Just the confusion of health insurance. Why are some things covered and other things aren’t? And how it’s hard to navigate the system, following up with claims. There’s a variety of stories out there.”

Last Wednesday, it was Sacramento’s turn. A white video booth about as big as your hall closet was set up on 11th Street between K and L streets. Passersby put their heads through a hole in the booth and spoke to a director whose disembodied head floated around on a video screen in front of them. The head belonged to a documentary filmmaker who led them through their personal stories, some of which will be posted on a Web site in the future,

Health care always has been a hot topic in California, but especially now with the specter of universal health-care looming. Schwarzenegger has proposed tweaks to California’s current system, as opposed to a single-payer system, which has led one expert to refer to the coming legislative battle as “one big ideological tug of war.”

“People are unhappy with the current system,” said Colin Cameron, a health economist with UC Davis. “There’s more desire for change than in the 1990s.”

DeLeeuw said Blue Shield supports a universal health-care option: “I have to say that everybody will have to give up something to make the system work, but the end result will be everybody having access to quality care.”

The half-dozen people who told their stories to SN&R were collectively in favor of some form of universal health care. Here are some excerpts from our conversations.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

Johaun Gillory has a new job and isn’t yet covered by an insurer.

Have you had health insurance in the past?

Yes, I have. Although, I’ve only used my health insurance a couple times, but my previous employers said I had to have it.

Was it easy to get an appointment and get in to see a doctor?

If I called in, yes. If I had to go to the ER, you know, for minor aches and pains, um, the ER at Kaiser sucks. … I had to wait like a good hour or two. They say they base it all on triage so, you know, I see people who are sitting next to me who obviously have a lot more serious issues than I did.

What about cost?

It was through my employer. I think I paid like five dollars. When I had strep throat I had to pay for the antibiotics, but it wasn’t that expensive.

What do you think of universal health care?

I think it’s a good idea. I mean, there are a lot of people who really, really can’t afford health insurance. Especially if you have your own small business, you don’t have an employer to get insurance from. It brings up a lot of good points.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

Renee Ford is on disability.

Are you individually insured or is it through your employer?

Oh, it’s individual. After you get declared totally disabled and your COBRA dies, they give you Medicare and then you get Secure Horizons. Originally, it was a supplemental insurance, and now it just says, “Well, we administer your Medicare benefits.” But they do pick up some of the co-payments and things that Medicare doesn’t pay.

Do you have to pay anything?

I pay $90 a month, and I’m very upset about the Medicare medication plan that Bush signed, because it covers you for $2,400 this year, and then you have to pay the next $3,850 in cash. … Last year, they covered $2,500 and they had [me] pay $3,600 in co-pays. … So my bill’s skyrocketed. I had to get another credit card. I fell behind in my payments to other people. It was nasty and it’s going to be nasty this year.

What do you think about the universal health care options?

I don’t know that much about them. If they would actually be universal, that would be helpful. … They advertise that the pharmaceutical companies have voluntarily agreed to help people out, and I called and checked, and they want to help the uninsured. And one of my doctors is angry because he spends time working at a homeless health center and he said if you don’t have an address, they refuse to send the medications. … I do not believe in the voluntary goodness of prescription companies.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

Clifton Mays, who’s self employed, does not have health insurance.

What did he ask you, first of all?

Well, he asked me not personal questions, but questions about how I felt about what was going on with their business.

What did you say?

I responded about what went on in my life and how I know other people where things happen. …When something goes wrong with the human body in America, they should fix it. I heard Europe is free. That’s what I heard. I don’t know if it’s true. I haven’t gone there to see for myself and I haven’t read anything, but this is America. It cost me five grand for something. They didn’t even do nothing.

Because you didn’t have an insurer?

Yeah. But that’s—I’m not going to give them five grand. I’ll pay them monthly, but it’s not OK. I was very upset but there’s nothing you can do. You get the bill. I thought I wasn’t going to get the bill but apparently they know where I was at. I wasn’t trying to run from them. It’s just one of those situations where there wasn’t anything in the hospital where they served me. If they showed me what it cost, I would have just left and went home and just slept. After I got home, I got the bill two months later. I couldn’t believe it.

What did they do?

It was just an IV, and I laid in bed. And the doctors talked to me. And they gave me their opinions. And I basically did like that [waves hand]. And the nurses put me to the exit, and I left.

Do you watch the universal health-care debate?

If they can spend billions and billions of dollars on a war effort, where they know men are going to die or get hurt, they can figure out a way to do maybe a gas tax. I’ve heard that. To cover everybody. It’s not hard.

Why haven’t they done it yet?

It’s about the cash. Somebody’s going to lose money if that happens. I’m talking in the billions. That’s what’s going on. Nobody wants to lose money.

K. Carter, who declined to be photographed, is a transit officer with Regional Transit.

What goes on in that little booth?

Well, you give your horror story, if you have one, or your good story.

What did you tell them?

I told them my horror story about an HMO-run hospital that told me when I was 21 that I needed a hysterectomy. And there wasn’t really anything wrong with me. They told me I could never have kids and I have a 13-year-old daughter now.

You’ve been with RT for how long?

Sixteen years.

Who covers Regional Transit employees?

There’s only two choices. Health Net and Kaiser, and I won’t take Kaiser.

How do you feel about the cost of health care?

It’s ridiculous. We went from not having any shared costs and spending five dollars for prescriptions and visits to having … my shared cost now is $70 a month. And my prescriptions can go upwards from $10. Some of my prescriptions are $20. And my fees to the doctor are $10.

What do you think about the possibility of universal health care?

I think that we should do that. I really do. I think that, you know, we should have universal health care and those who want different health care, better health care, should pay for it.

Another issue: how easy is it to get an appointment?

I actually have pretty good doctors. I’ve been to doctors where it was hard to get into. But I’m actually pretty blessed right now. Like, today, if I had something going on I could call and be in first thing in the morning. So I’m pretty happy with that. That’s one thing I am happy with.