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Meeting to focus on state of county health coverage

Report estimates 6,000 residents are uninsured

By Linwood Outlaw III -- loutlaw@nvdaily.com

FRONT ROYAL -- Roughly 87 percent of Warren County's residents receive health insurance coverage through their employer.

But a recent trend of insurance companies "paying out less and keeping more" is adversely affecting area residents, and health care reform offering public insurance options is desperately needed, according to a new report from the local chapter of a statewide grassroots organization.

The report, prepared by the Northern Shenandoah Valley chapter of the Virginia Organizing Project and titled "Warren County's Health Insurance Crisis: Why You and Your Neighbors Need Health Care Reform," illustrates how the county's goal to provide more jobs with health benefits is being undermined by various factors pertaining to health insurance, such as higher premiums and out-of-pocket expenses and reduced benefits. Rising insurance costs also are prohibiting economic development and taking a toll on services offered at institutions such as Warren Memorial Hospital and the St. Luke Community Clinic, officials say.

Findings from the report, which estimates that 6,000 people in the county are uninsured, will officially be released today at a community meeting focusing on health care reform at 2 p.m. at Samuels Public Library on East Criser Road.

"The effects of the current health care crisis in Warren County have been somewhat mitigated by the positive contributions to health care made by our local organizations and government programs. However, these institutions are struggling to keep up with demand," the report states.

Although Warren County has a "higher than average" number of residents covered by insurance compared to other localities in Virginia, many are insured by private for-profit health insurance companies that have "raised the rates on Warren County residents while making windfall profits," according to the report. "They seem to be out of control, raising premiums, denying claims, and even dropping people from the insurance rolls," the report states.

The local hospital and free clinics have been offering inexpensive services such as free prescriptions, screenings and physicals. About 290 children in Warren County are enrolled in Virginia's Family Access to Medical Insurance Security program, while more than 1,000 youths are covered by children's Medicaid, according to the report.

Still, an estimated 400 children in the county do not have any health insurance. And, despite donations and charitable efforts from local medical institutions, there are many uninsured people "going without treatment until their problems are acute and costly," according to the VOP's report.

"The health insurance companies are spending more than $1 million a day to cover up the damage their bad practices cause. If they succeed in sabotaging health care reform, Warren County will continue to go backwards," the report states.

Nationally, from 1999 to 2008, the average health insurance premium increased from $5,791 to $12,680. As costs continue to mount, employees are losing out on wage increases, and some businesses are dropping their health coverage. Warren County has a high percentage of construction workers who are less likely to be insured and an even lower number of people working in manufacturing, health care and social assistance fields where employees are more likely to be insured, VOP officials say.

Additionally, the average per-capita income in the county is lower than national and state averages. "More and more people are having to pay their own premiums," said VOP volunteer Barbara Stevens, who helped prepare the report. "People that are insured are at risk of losing their insurance."

Today's meeting will include a panel discussion led by renowned health care consultant and international medical reporter Michelle Katz, VOP volunteer Kelli Hart said.

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