Column/Helping the uninsured

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 26, 2007

Just about a week after taking his oath of office and entering his second term as governor, Bob Riley proposed a plan to help the uninsured of Alabama.

The governor’s proposal will encourage Alabama companies with 25 or fewer employees to provide health insurance coverage by allowing the companies to deduct twice the amount they pay for health insurance premiums from their state income tax.

In order to encourage the employees of these small businesses to participate in their employer’s health insurance plans, the proposal will let employees deduct twice the amount they contribute toward their health insurance premiums from their individual income taxes.

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This is a fundamental need in the state – to try to have health insurance benefits for every person.

According to the U.S. Census, 14.4 percent of the state’s population does not have health insurance. That equals 651,000 residents.

Of those who work for small businesses, it’s estimated that 52 percent are uninsured.

Nationally, things are no better. In fact, this is one area in which Alabama is below the national average, and it’s a good thing.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 15.7 percent of the population is uninsured, amounting to 45.8 million people.

Often, those of us with good insurance benefits take those for granted.

We can go to the doctor whenever we need to, and simply pay a co-pay. Our prescription drugs are less expensive. And, given an emergency, most likely the coverage would be 100 percent.

But most of us know someone who is uninsured.

They can’t just go to the doctor when they have an illness. And sometimes, they wait too late because they can’t afford the doctor visit.

We hear the stories about those who choose between medicines because they cannot afford all of their prescriptions each month.

I’ve also known senior citizens who split pills in half, or took them every other day to make the prescription last longer.

For those with chronic illness, or terminal illness, the reality is grim.

Those without insurance often put off needed treatment. They know they’re sick – in fact, often know they’re dying – but don’t believe they can afford the care.

It’s a truly bleak situation when someone dies of an illness when the treatment is just around the corner at a hospital, doctor’s office or pharmacy.

If you think it doesn’t happen, you’re seeing life through rose-colored glasses.

I’ve written before about my uncle – my age – who died of AIDS. He knew he was sick, but was self-employed and had no health insurance.

By the time he came home, he was already very ill. Family members took him immediately to doctors and specialists. They paid out of pocket until he was approved for disability.

They would have done this at any time, but often pride gets in the way of someone asking for help.

In the case of my uncle, he waited too late. He came home in February and died in June at the age of 35.

If the only thing this administration accomplishes is to lower the percentage of uninsured Alabama residents, then Riley’s time in office would have been well spent.

Tammy Leytham is editor of The Selma Times-Journal.