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Published: 7/13/2003

Powerless still wait for health care program

COLUMBUS - On the afternoon of Oct. 27, 2002, Tim Hagan, the Democratic candidate for governor, stopped at a bingo hall in the Cleveland suburb of Brook Park.

People streamed into Enterprise Hall, picking up a sheet of paper that listed the rules, from number one (prizes will be evenly split if more than one winner, with a $5 minimum every payout) to number 17 (proceeds assist children who are victims of Chernobyl and other disasters).

Through the thickening haze of cigarette smoke, Mr. Hagan spotted Cindi Verbelun.

“This is someone who falls through the cracks, and nobody responds,” said Mr. Hagan, a former Cuyahoga County commissioner. “To the insurance companies, this woman is a loss leader. She's a loser to them. My program calls for the state creating a pool to provide coverage for these people.”

Ms. Verbelun had more than a story. She had written a detailed analysis of how her medical insurance policy had changed.

For nine years, she had suffered from a form of anemia that kills her red blood cells.

As Mr. Hagan shook hands in the bingo hall, Ms. Verbelun told reporters how her monthly health-insurance premium jumped from $108 to $440, with a $1,500 cap on prescription-drug coverage because she has a “pre-existing condition.”

In an Oct. 11, 2002, letter to Mr. Hagan's press secretary, she wrote: “... I would still like very much to tell the voters - with Tim - exactly what kind of `help' Taft has afforded anyone with a `less-than-desirable' medical situation in today's world. I am hoping that this can be done before Election Day, as I feel it would really help to get the right man in the governor's office.”

Ms. Verbelun, who lives in South Euclid, joined other Hagan supporters at a Cleveland hotel on election night, Nov. 5, 2002.

The outcome - Gov. Bob Taft's re-election victory over Mr. Hagan by 58-38 percent - didn't surprise her.

“Tim had no money for TV commercials. Taft was in your face every time you turned around,” she said. “People are afraid to vote for a liberal. They'd rather vote for a conservative.”

And now, Mr. Taft, who can't run in 2006 for another term, seems to be fading away as every day passes, Ms. Verbelun said.

Her form of anemia has been dormant since February, but that hasn't stopped her health insurer from raising her premium from $440 to $617 per month.

She is 47, single, and unemployed, but she has tried to get a job.

Ms. Verbelun worked for a telemarketing firm until May, but she said the company reneged on the promised workload and she was let go.

“No one wants to pay anything you can live on. Nine dollars an hour might be great, but they don't want to pay benefits. I wish my name was Rockefeller and I could go out to my back yard and rip out $1,000 from the tree,” she said last week.

She then landed her “dream job” as a project manager assistant at a realty company - full-time and with benefits - but she said the firm didn't follow through with pledges to train her and she lost the job.

“That job would have saved my life,” she said.

She is the kind of American that Barbara Ehrenreich wrote about in her 2001 book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America - a “land of Big Boxes, fast food, and a thousand desperate strategems for survival.”

She hasn't forgotten Mr. Taft's campaign TV ads.

“We'll be soon helping our most deserving citizens, our seniors, with prescription drug discounts,” Mr. Taft said in an ad that began to air on Sept. 14, 2002.

Mr. Hagan said Mr. Taft's proposal to offer discounts through the Golden Buckeye Card would be about as valuable as taking a baseball card to a drugstore.

Seniors still are waiting for the program - two years and six months after Mr. Taft outlined it in his State of the State address.

Orest Holubec, Mr. Taft's press secretary, said the governor is “getting closer” to rolling the program out.

“We have been negotiating with the manufacturers and we are in the final negotiation stage now,” he said.

Ms. Verbelun said the pharmaceutical and insurance companies control Mr. Taft, and that's all people need to know.

Ms. Verbelun had no illusions about Mr. Hagan, whose rhetoric was sharp but his fund-raising ability zilch. At least he cared, at least he spoke up for her, at least he had the guts to battle the powerful, she said.

Now, some Democrats are telling the powerless like her that the only glimmer of hope is TV talk-show host Jerry Springer, running as the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in Ohio against Republican incumbent George Voinovich.

“Oh God, this isn't any way to get respectability,” Ms. Verbelun said. “I was taping the wrong channel by mistake and I saw his show once and I thought, `How does he get people to go on that show and say they slept with their cousin unless he pays those people very well?'” she said.



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