Public health care option seems only choice for rural Missouri

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WEST PLAINS, Mo. -- Janet Redford, a middle-aged, soft spoken redhead, sits across the table with tears in her eyes. After 37 years as a nurse, she's now on disability. Arthritis, inflammation, bone spurs, and other back-related pain, she told the World, made it impossible to keep working. She's just in too much pain.

While Redford received $5,000 in back pay for work-related injuries, she was also dropped from her employer-provided, private health insurance plan. Since she can't work, she can't afford to get health care on her own. COBRA, which gives laid-off workers access to their former employers’ group insurance rates, is nearly $400 a month. Over the past year and a half she's used all of her savings to pay for out-of-pocket medical expenses, mostly pain medicine.

'I have nothing left,' she said, 'just my house and the land it sits on - which I was hoping to leave to my four kids.' Redford isn't eligible for Medicare until February 2010.

'I guess I'll just suffer until then,' she said.

Unfortunately, Redford's situation isn't unique. All across America millions of people are sacrificing everything to a health care system that doesn't work.

According to Redford, the private health care industry 'is only out to make a profit - I'm just a statistic.'

'I worked my whole life. I paid into the system for 37 years,' Redford continued. 'I did everything I was supposed to do. Work hard, save money, for what?'

'Now my only concern,' Redford says as her chin begins to shake and tears swell her eyes, 'is that I don't become a burden on my children.'

Tom Arth, Janet's partner, doesn't have health care either. 'It's a gamble,' he said. 'I just hope I don't get sick.' Arth, like many in this rural community, is having a hard time finding work. There isn't a lot of work in West Plains, especially in this economy.

West Plains is in Howell County, in southwest Missouri. It is part of the 8th Congressional District, one of the most impoverished districts in the state. In fact, there are more pay day loan places here than there are McDonald's. Most jobs are non-union, service sector and fast food - traditionally low-wage jobs with few benefits.

According to the 2007 U.S. Census Bureau, over 20 percent of the population in Howell County are below the poverty level. Undoubtedly, that number has increased as the current economic crisis has worsened.

Redford, her partner, and a small group of activists - most of whom have their own health care stories to tell - are working with Health Care for America Now! (HCAN), a national grassroots coalition of community groups, unions, small businesses, doctors and providers trying to win real health care reform this year.

Ashli Bolden, a St. Louis based HCAN organizer, told the World, 'Right now the for-profit insurance industry has a monopoly on health care. Without competition from the federal government, without a public option nothing will change.'

HCAN is organizing town hall meetings all across Missouri, meeting with members of Congress and mobilizing constituents, like Janet Redford and her husband, to tell their stories. They are trying to build momentum for the Obama administration's health care reform.

Bolden continues, 'If a public option is good enough for Congress, then it's good enough for everybody. It will save money, provide better care and get rid of the dehumanizing practice of denying service to people with preexisting conditions.'

Janet and Tom agree. They just hope reform comes before things get worse.