WASHINGTON — When Columbus, Ohio, health care lobbyist Rick Colby writes his monthly check of $2,556 for his family's health insurance, his hand trembles.
"It's a staggering amount of money, and there's nothing I can do about it," the 49-year-old Colby says. His insurance rates soared over the past decade after his daughter, Lauren, was diagnosed with a brain tumor and his wife, Trish, developed breast cancer.
After his daughter died at age 8 in 2007, his rates dropped by a few hundred dollars a month, but then shot up by 20 percent the following year, he said.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who met Colby last month in Columbus, told his story in a speech this week in Washington to illustrate the flaws of the nation's health care system.
However, while Colby said he supported President Barack Obama's efforts to overhaul health care, he'd like the president to do a few things differently.
A registered Republican, Colby told Kaiser Health News that he strongly backs the administration's attempt to ban insurers from using pre-existing conditions to reject applicants or charge them higher rates. He also favors injecting more competition into the insurance market, but would like to do so by using existing government programs, not creating new ones.
He said, for example, that he thought that the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, under which members of Congress and federal employees receive coverage, should be opened to the general public. He also said he'd like to see Medicare and Medicaid expanded.
Colby, who owns a four-employee lobbying and consulting firm, said that any health overhaul plan should allow small business owners to deduct the cost of health insurance from taxes the way that large employers could.
Colby buys coverage through the Columbus Chamber of Commerce. He can't change plans because no one else would sell him a policy that would cover the needs of his wife, his two daughters and him.
The large amount he pays for insurance means that he can't afford to hire another employee or pay for policies for the workers he has. He said he decided to tell his story to Sebelius because "there's such an air of unreality down there in D.C., it looks like the bills are put together by people who have not had to navigate the health system."
He added, "I'm hoping and praying Congress can put aside partisanship and work together to put together a great bill. The answer is a fusion of the best ideas of the left and right, and lots of choices for Americans to choose from."
Colby, who lobbies for biotechnology, pharmaceutical and medical device companies, said he wasn't sure how much longer he could afford to pay $30,000 a year for full coverage. He hopes his rates fall next year, which will mark five years that his wife has been cancer free.
At the event Thursday sponsored by the University of Chicago, Sebelius said that many Americans didn't understand the problems the health system faced.
"Some Americans hear stories like Richard's and say, 'That's too bad, but I only pay a few thousand dollars in premiums a year. My employer pays the rest. So rising health costs don't really affect me.'
"The problem with that theory is that those rising premiums come out of your paycheck," Sebelius said. "So, for example, over the last 10 years, the average cost of a family health insurance premium went up $7,000. That's $7,000 that could have gone into Americans' pockets."
(Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent news service, is a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health care policy research organization that's not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.)
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