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DAVID LAZARUS CONSUMER CONFIDENTIAL

Walking proof of insurance crisis

September 26, 2007|DAVID LAZARUS

Tapan Chowdhury works in a shop at Hollywood and Vine, selling cheap plastic Oscar statuettes to tourists. Despite full-time employment, he's one of the 47 million Americans who doesn't have health insurance.

"It's very, very hard for me," Chowdhury said. He has diabetes and figures he spends about $200 a month treating his illness. "I always pay cash," he said. "It's very expensive."

I met Chowdhury, 52, while strolling Tuesday down Hollywood Boulevard. I wanted to see what people there had to say about the healthcare woes of General Motors Corp. and whether, like the automaker, they're finding the cost of insurance too much to bear.

In fact, I found only two people within the span of a dozen blocks who even had health insurance. The rest hold steady jobs and work hard but regard health coverage as a luxury they can't afford.

Reyna Fuentes, 45, opened a brand-new cafe Tuesday morning. It's called Lithium and still smells of paint when you go inside. Fuentes said she'd like to provide health insurance to herself and her employees. It's just too expensive.

"Maybe later," she said. "It's very difficult right now."

Some 73,000 members of the United Auto Workers went on strike against GM this week because of what the union called an impasse over job security. A key issue on the table is creation of a multibillion-dollar trust fund that would see the UAW taking over health coverage for thousands of GM retirees and their families.

GM, the largest private-sector purchaser of medical insurance in the United States, is eager to ease its healthcare costs as premiums continue to soar year after year. Many other employers are similarly looking to pass along a greater share of healthcare expenses to workers.

Wade Lawson should have such troubles. I met him standing alongside a sightseeing trolley, trying to coax out-of-towners into visiting the purported homes of movie stars. The theme from "The Andy Griffith Show" played from a nearby storefront.

As I recalled, no one in Mayberry had trouble paying for healthcare.

Lawson, 37, told me he used to be very well-insured as an investment banker for Merrill Lynch. Then he came to L.A. and got the acting bug. He landed a few gigs but nothing steady.

Now, he's a part-time tour guide, part-time surfer, part-time snowboarder and aspiring helicopter pilot. If it weren't for his domestic partner's coverage, Lawson said, he has no idea how he'd get insurance.

"I'm in the emergency room every few months," he said, showing off a few surfing and snowboarding scars. "Who would insure me?"

Continuing down the street, I passed the local branch of the Los Angeles Free Clinic -- healthcare for the down and out. I met Miriam Jones coming out the door with her 6-year-old daughter.

Jones, 30, was smartly dressed and strikingly attractive. She said she arrived from France about a month ago and is hoping to make it in L.A. as a freelance photographer. It hasn't been easy.

"We haven't been able to find any insurance that we can afford," Jones said. "It's so frustrating. This is the first time in my life without insurance."

In France, as with all other industrialized democracies, healthcare is guaranteed to everyone. If you get sick or hurt, you can see virtually any doctor at any hospital you please.

It's a system I've long said should be adopted by the United States -- maybe not exactly the same way France does it, or Canada, but ensuring that affordable healthcare is available to all.

Jones said her daughter woke up Tuesday feeling poorly. At a loss for any other course of action, she headed to the free clinic, where she was told to return that evening and maybe her daughter would be seen. Or maybe not.

Jones seemed to understand that her slice of the American pie wasn't being served up as expected.

"You have to do what you have to do for your kids," she said with a glance at the clinic. "It's scary. I don't know what I've gotten myself into."

Jones walked off with her child. I noticed that a uniformed security guard was watching me from the door of the facility. His name was Lee Jiwani and he said he just wanted to make sure I wasn't hassling people.

We got to talking. Jiwani, 44, said he can relate to how clinic patients feel.

"I busted my shoulder once," he said. "I went broke paying the hospital bill. I ended up on the street."

More recently, he said, he'd visit a free clinic in Venice any time he needed medical care. "They disqualified me because I got this job," Jiwani said.

Unfortunately, he said, he doesn't get health benefits even though he works for a medical facility. So he's employed, but he's still uninsured.

"It's a little strange," Jiwani said. "If I get hurt protecting someone here, I'm messed up. There's nothing I can do."

He said healthcare was crucial and worth fighting for. But unlike the autoworkers picketing GM, Jiwani isn't trying to protect an existing benefit. Like millions of others, he's trying to secure any medical benefit at all.

"The system doesn't work," Jiwani concluded. And then he returned to his job, keeping those who can't afford private insurance safe from harm.

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Consumer Confidential runs Wednesdays and Sundays and frequently in between. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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