Part of 54 arrests in nine states, Portland demonstrators chose Regence Blue Cross Blue Shield
October 15, 2009 -- Police arrested 12 people today for trespassing outside the Portland headquarters of Regence BlueCross BlueShield. The acts of civil disobedience were met by similar direct actions in nine cities across the country organized by Healthcare Now and the Center for the Working Poor.
Including the 12 in Portland, 54 people were arrested nationwide.
<<For an audio version of this story at KBOO.fm click here.
There have been many protests for healthcare reform in Portland recently, but this is the first incident in some time that involved non-violent civil disobedience with the intent of getting arrested.
Guy Marx, a registered nurse, was part of the protest but didn't get arrested.
"We believe the act of civil disobedience will bring more light, and show that even healthcare workers are willing to risk arrest," Marx said.
What started with a group of 26 people intending arrest, including two first-year medical students, shrunk to a group of 12 when police arrived. Those 12 were told they would likely spend the night in jail and face trespassing charges, terms they were willing to live with.
Dawnette McCloud, also a registered nurse, explained what took place.
”We originally planned to go in the lobby and ask to speak to the CEO to address some specific issues such as premiums going toward lobbying,” McCloud said. “But we’ve been told the building’s been locked down. So we plan to approach the doors, and ask to speak to the CEO. At that point if we aren't allowed to discuss these issues with him, then we’ll stand at all the entrances.”
As protesters stood at an entrance to a parking garage, several Regence employees approached, and a few protesters muscled their way through their locked arms.
Chris Lowe, one of the lead organizers, described their letter of demands.
“We’re here demanding that they not deny care to anyone with a life threatening condition, care that’s ordered by a doctor, and that they stop corrupting the political debate with our premiums,” Lowe said. “And we’re here advocating single payer healthcare because that’s the only kind of solution that can address all dimensions of the healthcare crisis.”
It’s unclear whether Regence CEO Mark Ganz received their letter of demands, but eventually the protesters did hear from Regence spokeswoman Angela Hult with police officers standing by her side.
“We appreciate you’re right to your opinion,” Hult told the demonstrators standing in a loading dock entrance. “But if you could, please leave. You are blocking access to our building. You are trespassing. And if you don’t leave, I have authorization to have you removed from the premises for trespassing.”
The police sergeant warned that arrests were imminent, then made the arrests. Protesters were handcuffed, escorted to the paddy wagon and taken to the police station.
Regence denies it’s part of problem
Hult later said protesters were targeting the wrong insurer. She denied that executive compensation and lobbying efforts by Regence were contrary to healthcare reform efforts.
“A lot of the message here is that they are protesting insurance profits. My point is we’re the wrong target," Hult said. "We’re a nonprofit health insurer. We've been advocating for healthcare reform as has the health insurance industry. I think folks here probably don’t know that.”
In general, Regence hasn't had much to say about reform efforts in Congress. At the state level, it's passed the 1 percent premium tax adopted by the legislature onto rate payers as have other insurers.
In Congress, Regence generally supports bi-partisan reform. Without being explicit, that means reform without a public option and without free choice as proposed by Senator Ron Wyden.
Following passage of the reform bill in the Senate Finance Committee earlier this week, which is considered the most conservative of the bills circulating through Congress, Ganz issued a statement
saying he was “cautiously optimistic.”
“Regence continues to be cautiously optimistic that an economically sustainable healthcare reform package will be adopted this year,” Ganz said. “Today's vote is an important step toward ensuring long-term healthcare security and stability for all Americans. However, there is still more work to be done."
Last year, Regence – a non-profit health plan – took in $600 million in premiums. It spent 86 percent of those dollars on medical care. In Oregon, it spent $42 million on administration, and paid its CEO Mark Ganz at least $1.8 million last year.
And while enrollment shrunk, premiums increased by 26 percent last year and 14 percent already this year.
Rejected for carpal tunnel
According to Gillian Hearst, Regence denied her husband, Patrick Collier, coverage for an individual health plan because of a pre-existing carpal tunnel syndrome.
"He was diagnosed with this but he was never treated. We had Blue Cross coverage in Illinois, and I thought we’d get it out here no problem. Thankfully he was in the Navy so he went back to the Veterans Association and gets his care there now.”
Every year roughly one in four, roughly 20,000 individuals who apply for health insurance are rejected in Oregon
Hearst said Regence dragged its feet in sending them an official denial notice so they could enroll in the high risk pool where coverage is guaranteed for people with pre-existing conditions.
"Because we first needed some specific form from them before that could happen, he just said I’m going to go back to the VA," she said.
Even if Congress bars the practice of rejecting people with pre-existing conditions, it won’t solve the problem of charging premiums based on age, she added.
“It’s a positive but I’m concerned with the ageism involved. I’m 44. Next year my premiums are going to go up when I’m 45.”
For an audio version of this story at KBOO.fm click here.
For related articles about Regence click here.
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