Saturday, January 29, 2011

Winter Road Trip - Dodging Snow Storms Through Main Street America

We took a 2700 mile road trip to visit Ron's daughters in Iowa and Minnesota in early January. Why January, you ask? I had a lot of time off in January and Ron's oldest daughter had just given birth to a new baby in December.

After checking the weather forecast, we decided that departing Monday, January 3rd and getting back by January 12th would be our best window to dodge snow storms and avoid dangerous icy roads.  We left our home in New Mexico January 3rd, heading east on I-40 following the heart of historic Route 66 through the plains and rolling hills of eastern New Mexico.

I-40 through the eastern plains of New Mexico

Tucumcari Mountain (4,999 ft. elevation)
We arrived in Tucumcari in 2.5 hours.   
Tourists who do a tour of old Route 66
usually stop at the historic Blue Swallow Motel

Passing through the old downtown area, barely hanging on were a few commercial stores and ancient looking motels, we only stopped for gas here. We then headed northeast on US 54 toward the Texas border. 

We drove 500 miles in about 9 hours through the grasslands of Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas to Pratt, KS where we spent the night.  As we passed through southwestern Kansas, we viewed hundreds of small family farms amid brown stubble cornfields and patches of green planted with winter wheat.  The railroad track along US 54 served the ubiquitous grain elevators and silos that were the center of every town. This is tornado country, the land flat and with little elevation but for some rolling hills. The weather was cold, but we were blessed with sunshine and ice-free roads.  We headed toward Kansas City via the Kansas Turnpike.

Kansas City - located at the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri Rivers,
is a major city for two states: Kansas and Missouri
Kansas City is a huge metropolitan area located in the center of the United States and is the cultural heartland of the American mid-western region.  It takes almost an hour to navigate the tangled highways around and through Kansas City and head north to the Iowa border.

We drove a total of 520 miles on January 4th, entering Iowa  snow-coated farmlands via I-35.  Passing the capital and largest city of Iowa, Des Moines, we decided to rest overnight in Grinnell, Iowa. Home of a top-tier liberal arts college, Grinnell College, we found downtown Grinnell to be a small, neatly laid-out Main Street American town with a number of diverse eateries and shops, mostly vacant due to the college Winter Break.  We dined at the Bourbon Street Grille and Voodoo Lounge for some New Orleans-style Cajun and creole food. We asked our waitress about Grinnell College's reputation as a highly respected liberal arts college.  She had graduated from Grinnell the previous year with a major in Psychology and Art and was very fond of the school.  We asked how much it cost to attend Grinnell and were blown away with her reply: $46,000 a year! And now she works as a waitress! $184,000 for a Batchelor's degree? Something is very wrong with America's education system that people actually buy into this dream but may never see the return on their investment. If she took out loans to pay for her college, she now owes the equivalent of what might have been a very nice house!

As Ron is from Cleveland, Ohio, he enjoyed watching Ohio State defeat Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl football game later that evening.  We left Grinnell for Davenport, IA on a cold but sunny Wednesday morning.  It was a 2 hour drive and we stopped for lunch off I-80 near the Amana Colonies  of Iowa. The Amana Colonies was established as a religious utopian community of German immigrants. Although we didn't get to tour the Amana Colonies, we did enjoy some good German food and took home-made fruit pies and Amana Colonies-produced Millstream Brewery Beer with us to Davenport.  We arrived about 2PM to Jeff and Margaret's home and finally saw Max Henry, almost one month old now.

Max Henry at 1 month old
We were quite the doting grandparents and were delighted to hold little Max in our arms.
Me with little Max
Ron holding Max
Margaret was adjusting to first-time Motherhood and Jeff was very supportive as a first-time Dad.  As a photographer and videographer (these photos are from Jeff), he was documenting Max's life .  Margaret will take six months of maternity leave from her job at Augustana College.  Jeff, unfortunately, had to return to his job as a high school teacher after only a month home. We brought in take-out dinner (Thai food was requested) the first night we visited.  On Thursday night, Ron made a wonderful Spaghetti dinner for all.

Mom (Margaret) with baby
Touser was very protective of the new baby

We stayed at the Radisson Quad City Plaza in Downtown Davenport.  Our lovely room had a view of the Mississippi River and Rock Island, Illinois.  It was quite cold but the sun was bright and days clear during our three day stay, and it wasn't until we left Friday headed north toward Minnesota that we finally saw our first flakes of snow.  The 6 hour trip ahead to Minneapolis and Chaska would be pretty tough as the snow flakes changed to a raging blizzard. Continued at Part II 

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Repeal of the Affordable Care Act Would Be Unforgivable

Most Republicans and all the Tea-Party elected Congressmen and Congresswomen will vote today to Repeal the Affordable Care Act that became law in March 2010.  They will not get it through the Senate.  President Obama would not sign it if it did.  Why are they going against the tide of history to try and kill even these modest reforms to health care in America?  They obviously do not understand the real problem and costs to Americans who do not have or cannot afford health care.  For those of us who do have health insurance, we are paying more and more of our income and savings for the privilege of having access to health care. Without the reforms made in this law, many of us who leave an employer with health insurance will be shocked to find we cannot obtain new insurance because of "pre-existing conditions" that affect 129 million people in America today. On the House floor today,  my Congressman Martin Heinrich (NM1-Dem) cited my experience with getting denied insurance because of  "pre-existing conditions" and the high premiums I pay for an insurance policy although my medical conditions are well managed and I am overall healthy. Under the Affordable Care Act of 2010, I will be able to shop for a competitive insurance policy beginning in 2014 as I cannot be denied insurance for "pre-existing conditions." To repeal the law that allows me to choose my own doctor and medical care without bankrupting my family would be unforgivable.

I am a middle-class 60 year old woman who is individually insured because, although I am employed, my employer does not offer health insurance. My husband is on Medicare and as a disabled veteran, receives his medical care free from Veteran's Administration Healthcare; therefore I am not eligible for his medical care as a dependent.

The main reasons for my support of the Affordable Care Act that became law in 2010 are that I want access to affordable health care for myself, my family, and all Americans. I want to be able to apply for and receive insurance coverage despite “pre-existing conditions”. I want the millions of uninsured Americans to be covered for preventative care, immunizations, physical exams, doctor’s visits, hospitalization, and medicine. I think that the uninsured of our country postpone care, get sicker, develop more serious conditions, and utilize emergency rooms at a very high rate for non-emergency care and that this results in uncontrollable and unsustainable increases to both taxes and in the insurance rates of those who pay for insurance (both businesses and individuals).

Also, people who need insurance because of existing health conditions need to be in a large insurance pool to spread the risk for insurance companies and keep rates low. However before Health Care Reform, insurance companies could deny individual applicants based on “pre-existing conditions.” We had few choices after being denied by the insurance company we wanted coverage with. If we met federal poverty guidelines, we might be eligible for Medicaid. If not, we could go without insurance, pay as we go, and risk losing our assets if a major illness or accident arose. We could go with an insurance company who issues riders to not cover treatment for “pre-existing conditions.” We could go into a “high risk pool” (if available) and pay very high premiums or lower premiums with minimal care catastrophic coverage with very high deductibles Even if those in high risk insurance pools live healthy lives and manage their medical conditions, they still have escalating premiums that eat up their assets and may even drive them to bankruptcy.

Also, because of their medical conditions, many people limit their lives and their careers to stay with an employer just to retain medical insurance. I had a colleague in my company in San Diego who had a liver transplant. She wanted to change careers to nursing and spend more time with the grandson she was raising, but couldn’t think of it because her monthly prescriptions (to prevent organ rejection) were very expensive and she could not obtain insurance on her own if she left the company. She plans to work for the same company until she is 65 and eligible for Medicare. I only hope she isn’t laid off like I and eight other colleagues over the age of 50 who lost our jobs and medical coverage in 2005. My story is attached.

My Story:

My family enjoyed the security of affordable health care for 27 years when I worked for General Dynamics (later BAE Systems) in San Diego. Both hourly and salaried employees had a choice of Aetna and two HMO’s. I enrolled in the Kaiser Permanente Plan, had two babies in Kaiser Hospitals, and continued my Kaiser insurance through COBRA after I was laid off Dec. 31, 2004. I had two daughters in college who were on my plan and I had dental coverage: the total cost to me under COBRA was $495 a month. I moved to New Mexico in February, 2005. I had to travel back to San Diego for routine care as I could only use Kaiser Doctors and hospitals - except for emergency or urgent care. I started working for Smith’s Food and Drugstore in Albuquerque in August, 2005; however, they did not provide medical care benefits for the first year of employment (Smith's is part of Kroger, Inc., the largest grocery store in the USA with sales of more than $76 billion in 2009). I left Smith’s because I wanted an employer that offered medical benefits immediately. I married in January, 2006. My husband is a disabled veteran who received Medicare and VA hospital benefits. Because of this, he didn’t have an insurance plan that I could enroll in as a dependent. I started working part-time as a Substitute Teacher for Rio Rancho Public Schools and for Educational Testing Service, Inc. as a Test Scorer. Neither provided medical benefits so I continued my COBRA coverage for the remainder of the 18 months I was eligible for. Because I now lived in New Mexico, I wasn’t offered Kaiser coverage during open enrollment period under COBRA in January, 2006, so I selected Aetna because they offered the Presbyterian HMO Plan and I was very happy with my Presbyterian doctor and their care. The cost under COBRA continuation was $478 for myself only (no dependents) and included dental coverage. In June, 2006, I was notified that my COBRA benefits would expire and that I needed to select a new insurance plan. I applied for an Individual Presbyterian Health Plan (HMO) and was denied coverage. I showed them my Evidence of Continuous Coverage from Aetna. Presbyterian Insurance said that they did not have to honor it for an individual plan. I was shocked and angry. I had been a member of the Presbyterian HMO for six months. I appealed my denial and met with underwriting where they declared they would not provide me an insurance plan due to pre-existing conditions. I had recently been diagnosed with high blood pressure and have had high cholesterol for 15 years. I could not afford to go without insurance as I was 55 years old, owned a home, a car, and had savings that I could lose if I was uninsured and met with an accident or major illness. I applied for a short-term “gap” policy for the month of July and searched for someone to insure me. Mega Insurance issued me a very limited policy but it had a Rider that excluded coverage for my pre-existing conditions. Before the 60 day limit after my COBRA coverage had expired, I was able to get an individual policy with the New Mexico Health Insurance Alliance. I selected the Presbyterian HMO option and my monthly premium was $421 for myself only, no dental. I thought that it wasn’t so bad, the same plan as when I had Aetna except the co-pays were higher, but I kept my same doctor I had used since I arrived in New Mexico. To help pay for my medical insurance and my kids’ college tuition, I had already taken an early withdrawal of a portion of my IRA. Then the premium went up 9% to $457 in 2007 and increased 13% in 2008 to $516 - plus they increased my co-pays. Now my medical insurance and co-pays were one third of my income. I needed help to pay my medical bills so I applied for my retirement pension early at a reduced monthly amount. In 2009, my medical insurance premium was raised to $547 and in 2010 to $605. I turned 60 in December so I got an age-based increase to $633. I earned $40,000 last year from part-time work and pension income. My insurance premiums were $6998 and my unreimbursed co-pays for medical visits, prescriptions and dental care were $1,888.34 which is 22% of my income for 2010. I have 5 more years to go until I am eligible for Medicare. I was pleased that the Affordable Healthcare Act passed in 2010 will allow me to shop competitively for an affordable insurance policy without pre-existing conditions affecting my eligibility. I will be 63 in 2014 and still need to self-insure for two more years. I don’t want to have to take reduced Early Social Security just to pay for medical insurance.