Friday, May 06, 2005 | Like apothecaries tinkering to create the right medicine, leaders from the local business, labor, consumer and health care communities are trying to remedy the diagnosis that one out of seven county residents lack health insurance.

About 100 people attended a roundtable discussion Thursday to share their input about how they think health care coverage in San Diego County could be expanded to the 429,000 residents that don’t have insurance.

The perspectives packed into a Kearny Mesa hotel conference room Thursday were diverse and at time contentious, but organizers believe that through candid discussion, they can craft a plan that best fits the region’s needs. Eventually, the group hopes to reach a policy agreement that can be proposed to the state Legislature as a five-year pilot program for San Diego County.

“We have an opportunity as a county to stop the infighting and maybe put forth a manageable solution,” said roundtable panelist Kathlyn Mead, president and CEO of Sharp Health Plan.

Mead and others at the San Diego Business Healthcare Connection event said health care policy is one of society’s most polarizing issues and that the roundtable’s goal is to seek compromise locally before bringing a proposal to lawmakers.

“It always comes down to one thing: People are on opposite sides and we come up with nothing,” said Jan Spencley, an independent health care consultant who spoke at the event.

The group says they have reached consensus on a number of tenets for their plan, including:

– All citizens and legal residents should have access to affordable health care coverage.

– Coverage and fees should take family income into consideration.

– Some services, such as well-child care, screening exams and recommended periodical exams, should be exempt from deductibles.

At Thursday’s meeting, which coincided with a national “Cover the Uninsured Week” campaign, the attendees considered health savings accounts, deciding between composite rates or rate-banding by age group, and methods of how coverage is paid for. Spencely said the responses will be studied to take in account overall support and backing among all constituencies before considering that those items are considered for consensus.

Although only about half the policy questions put before the audience Thursday were agreed to by near consensus, everyone in the room appeared in favor of reform. Panelists and attendees alike were critical of everything from private plans to hospital care to the state’s Medi-Cal program.

Charles Walker, a disabled man from Bankers Hill who lost his insurance plan after being laid off from his engineering job about a year ago, said the Medi-Cal program is unaccommodating. His share of medical costs is $965 per month under the plan and that some treatment centers would turn him away after learning he was enrolled in the state plan.

“All of the sudden I didn’t have health care when I needed it the most,” Walker said.

Scott Smith, owner and operator of Mary Jane Salon in Hillcrest, provides health insurance for his business’s eight employees because he feels it’s a noble incentive he was never offered by any of his employers prior to opening his own shop. He said he supported the roundtable’s efforts to reform through compromise between different constituencies.

“The way we’re going to see change is through keeping everybody committed to the process,” he said.

A study released this week by the Center on Policy Initiatives, a local labor think tank, showed that San Diego County had the third-highest rate of uninsured residents in the state, behind Los Angeles and Orange counties.

Almost 15 percent of the county’s residents are without health care, causing the region’s hospitals to absorb over $300 million in uncompensated costs, the study said.

The city of San Diego recently passed a living wage ordinance that mandates contractors who do above a certain amount of business with the city must pay their employees either $12 an hour or $10 an hour plus health coverage.

Since last May, the group – spearheaded by the San Diego Business Healthcare Connection – has been meeting to discuss the different facets of health insurance they find appealing through focus groups and planning committees. Thursday was the third staged roundtable where questions regarding the proposal have been voted on.

Blue Shield of California Foundation president and CEO Crystal Hayling, who moderated the event, told the participants that San Diego’s effort to find solutions locally was unprecedented.

“I can’t think of an organization in the state as far along as you are,” she told the participants.

Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly at

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