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HETRICK: My Washington day in the war for health reform

October 24, 2009

I awoke long before the alarm sounded Tuesday. It’s not every day one testifies before Congress, so I was eager and anxious.

When the waking hour arrived, I showered, donned a suit and grabbed my briefcase. My son Zach drove me to the airport for my flight to Washington.

Call me sentimental. Brand me patriotic. But I still get goosebumps in our nation’s capital. Despite cynicism about government and its ability to serve, I’m moved by Washington’s monuments and memorials, by words of wisdom and names of heroes carved in stone.

When my plane landed, I hopped on the Metro and disembarked at Smithsonian Station. On a beautiful fall day with a few hours to spare before I had to be on Capitol Hill, I wanted to walk the Mall and put my cause in context.

I headed first toward the World War II Memorial, one I’d not seen. I walked through tributes to the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. I found the Indiana column with its massive wreath. I read quotations from presidents and generals, admirals and authors—words about citizens who sacrificed selflessly—and as one—for the benefit of all.

The memorial’s announcement stone says: “Here in the presence of Washington and Lincoln, one the 18th-century father and the other the 19th-century preserver of our nation, we honor those 20th-century Americans who took up the struggle during the Second World War and made the sacrifices to perpetuate the gift our forefathers entrusted to us, a nation conceived in liberty and justice.”

I wondered whether, in today’s divisive America, we could unite behind any struggle or even agree on what gift our forefathers entrusted to us.

A quote from Women’s Army Corps Commanding Officer Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby says, “Women who stepped up were measured as citizens of the nation, not as women … this was a people’s war and everyone was in it.”

I wondered what, if any, people’s war—defense against terrorism, teaching children, fighting poverty, saving lives, enhancing health—would get everyone “in it” today?

In a tribute to the Battle of Midway, author Walter Lord is quoted as saying: “Even against the greatest of odds, there is something in the human spirit—a magic blend of skill, faith and valor—that can lift men from certain defeat to incredible victory.”

As I headed toward Capitol Hill to discuss small-business health insurance costs, I wondered whether—after health-reform defeats dating back to Theodore Roosevelt—the skill, faith and valor of the human spirit will finally bring relief to human health and lives.

Inside the stately hearing room, I sat at a table with two other small-business owners and a public-policy expert. In the tiers of seats before us sat nearly a dozen members of Congress—the Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

As chairman Bart Stupak of Michigan had us stand, raise our right hands and swear to tell the truth, it felt like “Judgment at Nuremberg”—or at least the Watergate hearings of my youth. But no individual was on trial here—just our nation’s health system and the potential remedies for reforming it.

After each representative made an opening statement—some in sharp disagreement with one another—we witnesses got our moment in the spotlight.

Norman Michael Landauer, who owns a muffler shop in Davenport, Iowa, talked of crippling price increases for health insurance due in large measure to his own medical condition. Next year, he’s pulling himself off the company policy to better control costs for his employees. Because he won’t be able to get insurance elsewhere, he fears that if his health gets worse, he’ll have to sell his business to pay his doctors.

Fred Walker, who owns a glass and mirror company in St. Petersburg, Fla., said that a business downturn had forced him to consider dropping his firm’s health coverage. When he notified his employees, his secretary raced out and got the breast exam she’d been putting off. She had cancer. The broker providing quotes on individual policies said no one would cover her until she’d been cancer-free for 10 years. So Walker retained his company policy, even though the cost makes his firm’s financial condition even worse.

I explained how our firm’s rates jumped 28 percent in one year largely because of one employee’s illness. But when that employee died prior to the policy-renewal date, the price increase dropped to 10 percent. I addressed the need for larger risk pools, more competitive coverage and fairer tax policies.

Because health problems occur one person at a time, they don’t seem as urgent as world wars. But the impact on our lives, health and futures is no less harmful. I don’t envy the House, Senate or White House the difficult decisions they must make. I do know that our nation’s health is a people’s war and—like it or not—everyone is in it.•

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Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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