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Dodging the health insurance minefield

By David South

Today’s Seniors (Canada), 1992

Don’t leave home without it. No, not American Express Travellers cheques but health insurance. With changes to OHIP coverage for out-of-country hospital visits and rising U.S. health care costs, any snowbird who pays a visit to an American hospital will face hefty bills. To make things even more complicated, the recent growth in competing travel health insurance schemes in Canada has created a minefield of policies that must be entered with caution.

Luckily for snowbirds, the newly formed Canadian Snowbird Association is trying to make these changes a little easier to cope with. Formed in March, the Association boasts 8,500 members and is looking for more. They hope to advocate for the rights of snowbirds and collect information on private insurance plans to help seniors make the right decisions.

Communications co-ordinator Don Slinger says he will have a list of appropriate private health insurance policies ready by the end of August. The Association has been meeting with private insurance companies to find out the best plans.

“Snowbirds shouldn’t be in a hurry to get insurance,” says Slinger. “Many insurance companies are using the situation to exploit panic-stricken seniors.”

Slinger warns snowbirds never to go down to the U.S. without extra insurance on top of OHIP. “OHIP is just a drop in the bucket of the cost of a stay in an American hospital. Unfortunately, a lot of people still take the chance.

“I had been going south for 12 years without a problem until a ruptured appendix. It ended up costing me $12,000 for an eight-day hospital stay.

“When we met with the government they weren’t sympathetic. They said snowbirds are a wealthy group and can afford the payments. However, a lot of people are on fixed incomes and won’t be able to afford to go south with these higher costs.”

Slinger advises against buying coverage after arriving in the U.S. The Snowbirds Association emphasizes that it believes in medicare and will fight hard to ensure it provides full coverage for seniors.

Gerry Byrne, a vice-president at non-profit insurers Blue Cross warns against buying U.S. insurance because companies require a medical exam and skim off the healthiest people for full coverage. But Blue Cross itself will introduce rates based on age and medical conditions in September.

American health insurance plans have long been criticized for hurting older seniors and those with ongoing medical conditions. In these schemes, the healthiest seniors pay low premiums while seniors with chronic conditions are saddled with higher rates or, worse still, refused coverage. Unlike medicare – which covers everybody regardless of their health – private insurers are tempted to reduce their costs by covering only the lowest risk group – favouring the young and healthy.

Unfortunately, a quick survey of travel health insurance plans shows this trend to be in full bloom in Canada. Credit card companies, which have recently begun to offer travel health insurance, are revising their conditions. The Royal Bank’s Visa Gold card will drop coverage for seniors over 65 starting Nov. 1. The Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and Scotia Bank Visa cards still offer coverage to seniors – but both are revising this. American Express’s annual plan has no age limit, while its per trip plan has a higher rate for seniors between 60 and 74 and doesn’t cover anybody 75 and over.

Suzanne Deul, who helps market the Toronto Dominion Bank Visa card, blames the insurance companies for changes. “Because of high costs, the pressure is on to change policies. We are trying to be more equitable but the insurers want age restrictions. In some ways it could be justified to charge more for people who attract higher costs.”

With so many health insurance companies losing money covering seniors, the challenge for private insurers is to make covering seniors profitable without excluding people. To this end, Robin Ingle, president of John Ingle Travel Insurance, has instituted changes to increase the money available for more expensive hospital stays.

“About one-third of our policy holders are over 65, and we have a lot of snowbirds. This group is only getting bigger, so instead of raising rates and placing restrictions, we increased the number of policy holders to include a broad range of people young and old.”

Ingle blames rising U.S. health care costs for making it unprofitable to provide health insurance to seniors. His company has set up an office in Florida to prevent hospitals overcharging Canadians and has negotiated deals with some hospitals for lower rates. John Ingle Travel Insurance offers special rates for seniors’ groups and gives a 10 per cent discount to members of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons.

Three years ago there were 10 companies in Canada offering travel insurance; now there are over 50.

According to Ingle, many of the neophyte companies are losing money. “I predict the whole industry will shrink because they have had high losses and can’t take care of their clients. I would advise seniors to watch out for companies that might not be around a year from now.”

Ingle says seniors should also beware of glitzy marketing and flashy pamphlets and read the fine print to make sure the policy covers their age and medical condition.

Irene Klatt of the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association, which represents all private for-profit insurers, advises seniors to look for insurance plans that have toll-free numbers that can be called 24 hours a day in an emergency. This will cut down on hassles with American hospitals which will not admit patients without insurance. The Association also has its own toll-free advice line staffed by seniors from the insurance industry. Klatt warns that her association represents all for-profit insurers and can’t favor one scheme over another but does have a pamphlet that offers advice on choosing insurance.

Insurance, of course, isn’t enough to ensure a healthy stay. Irene Turple of the Canadian Association on Gerontology has some helpful health tips: “Discuss your trip with the family doctor. Make a list of all your medications; and remember – the names of the drugs can be different in the States. If you have an echocardiogram handy, bring it along. Make a health diary listing your medical history. Remember that physicians aren’t all-knowing and if you can provide as much medical information as possible it can make a difference.”

Turple also stresses getting immunized for the flu before going to the States and remembering to cover up from the sun.

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New Seniors’ Group Boosts ‘Grey Power’: Grey Panthers Chapter Opens With A Canadian Touch

By David South

Today’s Seniors (Canada), April 1993

Check your prejudices at the door, look beyond your self-interest, and open your mind, because the Grey Panthers are here in Canada.

Joe Moniz, the 26-year-old founder of the Canadian Grey Panthers, is confident that his ambitious plans for a new national seniors’ organization are just what Canadian seniors need. 

That’s right: 26-years-old. Modelled on the U.S. Grey Panthers, the Canadian Grey Panthers believe in harnessing the power of all age groups, making the connection that everybody will eventually be a senior and that seniors benefit from a better society for everyone. 

“The major difference between us and any other organization is our slogan, “Age and Youth Working Together,” he says. “Look at our pension fund. It’s depleting. I’m concerned about my future as a senior citizen – will there be a pension fund? We want to act now, to bring youth and age together to improve the situation of seniors today and improve our situation in the future. 

“Membership is open to all age groups. We want to bring seniors into day care to interact with children. We want to deal with the universities, give people the opportunity to discuss and unite. It’s a different approach, but it can make a huge difference.”

Moniz has already organized the group’s first chapter, in Hamilton, complete with a board of retired university professors and doctors. The group has put together insurance packages that will “blow the others out of the water.”

“All seniors’ attempts at lobbying in the past have been short term,” says a blunt Moniz. “We are the organization that will make the difference. We will lobby provincially, federally, and municipally, and we are non-partisan.

“The reason I’m introducing the Grey Panthers is to keep grey power alive in Canada, and to provide the necessary channels to do so through lobbying efforts. If anyone has problems with local politicians, they can call us, and we in turn let them know the channels they should use. There are a lot of seniors out there being cheated, and it is up to us to help them.”

The Canadian Grey Panthers (which uses the British spelling, as opposed to its American counterpart) will initially concentrate on four issues: pensions, drug plans, affordable housing and long-term care, and will communicate information through newsletters, surveys and meetings. 

Moniz promises to make the Panthers accessible to all, no matter what their income. He plans to hit the streets and visit institutions to inform seniors of the group’s presence. As if to prove the group’s potential for excitement, an enthusiastic gentleman from a local retirement home interrupts Moniz during a coffee shop interview. “That’s the best thing I’ve heard from a young person in Toronto,” he says. 

The U.S. Panthers were formed by political activist Maggie Kuhn and five friends in 1970. Back then, their name wasn’t as exciting. It was the convoluted and unsexy “Consultation of Older and Younger Adults for Social Change.” In 1972, they adopted the media’s pet name – a grey twist on radical African-American rights organization the Black Panthers. 

The radical milieu of political activism was contagious – and the Panthers symbolized its jump from the youth of America to other generations. 

“When we formed, we were an intergenerational group,” says Panthers’ U.S. national chair, Charlotte Flynn. “The first issue the group addressed was mandatory retirement. We combat the stigma of ageism, which is making decisions about people based on chronological age. Ageism isn’t just confined to the elderly – ageism exists for young people as well.”

The agenda of the Panthers is just as radical today. Flynn, who is candid about the group’s failures as well as its successes, admits that it isn’t the easiest route to popularity. With membership at about 45,000, the U.S. Panthers have spoken out on now-popular issues like health care, the environment, affordable housing – and taken brave stands against mainstream opinion when it came to the Gulf War and the invasion of Panama. 

And they think big. Not content with just influencing the American political scene, the Panthers have taken on the world, gaining official advisor status at the United Nations. 

Although involved in a broad range of issues, Flynn says the Panthers are primarily seen as a strong voice for the rights of American seniors. 

“We have tried very hard to let people know we are not a special interest group for the elderly,” says Flynn. “But we are always getting called upon to highlight what any legislation is doing to older people.” 

With Panther groups sprouting in Europe and now in Canada, the important issue of maintaining the integrity of the Panther name has arisen, says Flynn. She points to the flip side of having a reputation for action: people want to start branches without being interested in the full agenda of the Panthers, using the name for shock value. At the last convention in November 1992, the Panthers formed a committee to act as quality control monitors for the name. 

One thing is clear from the ambitious agenda of the Grey Panthers – they aren’t for everyone. 

But Moniz’s pragmatic approach seems distinct from the American Panthers. He shies away from some of the American group’s positions, emphasizing a balance between insurance policies and political policies. 

“If you read the American Panthers’ position sheet, it’s anti-this and anti-that,” he says. “We aren’t going to take that approach. It would be suicide.”

But he is quick in his praise of the group and its founder Maggie Kuhn. “People may consider her actions to be radical, but they’re not. Look at the achievements. She is one of the top 25 active women in the U.S.

“The Gray Panthers are achievers. They have proven the effectiveness of intergenerational attempts at social justice.”

A quick call to seniors’ groups drew many surpised faces. 

“I can’t say anything about them – I don’t know who they are,” responded Murray Morgenthau, executive director of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP). 

Jane Leitch at the United Senior Citizens of Ontario had heard something was happening but wonders why a new group is forming “with so many groups out there.”

One Voice spokesperson Andrew Aitkens says his group is closer to the American Association of Retired Persons than the Panthers in their approach, and that they “have found that there are much more effective ways for advocacy. We don’t march on the Hill at the drop of the hat.”

But Flynn says the Panthers embody a philosophy distinct from all other seniors’ groups. “As Maggie Kuhn said, ‘those of us who are older are the elders of the tribe and should be concerned about survival.’ We look at all issues that deny people the ability to realize their full potential, whether young or old. We are really interested in empowering people rather than being a special interest for the elderly.” 

More from Canada’s Today’s Seniors

Feds Call For AIDS, Blood System Inquiry: Some Seniors Infected

Government Urged To Limit Free Drugs For Seniors

Health Care On The Cutting Block: Ministry Hopes For Efficiency With Search And Destroy Tactics

New Seniors’ Group Boosts ‘Grey Power’: Grey Panthers Chapter Opens With A Canadian Touch

Seniors Falling Through The Health Care Cost Cracks

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Health Care In Danger

Worrying breakdown in Ontario reforms

By David South

This Magazine (Canada), October-November, 1992

The Senior Citizens’ Consumer Alliance for Long-Term Care’s report on the Ontario New Democratic government’s health care reforms, released in July, documents what many people suspected: the much-needed reforms are mismanaged and dangerously close to chaos.

The report compares the present crisis to the failed attempt in the seventies to move psychiatric care out of institutions and into communities by closing 1,000 beds. Patients were left with inadequate community services, resulting in many homeless and jailed former patients. The alliance fears seniors – the biggest users of health services – could fall victim to reforms in the same way.

According to many health care reformers, Bob Rae’s government seems to have lost control of the issue, resulting in massive job losses and a worrying breakdown in services.

The NDP’s health care document “Goals and Strategic Priorities” reads like a wish list for progressive health care reformers, ranging from disease prevention programmes to improved access to health care for minorities, natives and women. To many, the debate isn’t over these goals but how they are achieved and what the government’s true motives are. Under pressure from big business and its lobby groups, the NDP is desperate to save money where it can, and as Ontario Health Minister Francis Lankin says, “not disrupt or destroy business confidence.”

Emily Phillips, president of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, is blunt: “The NDP’s plans sound good on paper, but they can’t give a budget or direct plan on how they hope to carry out reforms. They are going about things backward. They cut hospital beds and lay off staff without having community health care services ready.”

The national trend in health care is to deinstitutionalize and bring services to homes and communities. It is hoped that emphasizing prevention and healthy living will significantly reduce the need for hospitals, expensive drugs, surgery and high-tech equipment. The NDP has pledged to spend $647 million to reform long-term care services by 1997 – creating services that will allow seniors to stay in their own homes.

Problem is, the NDP has embarked on radical down-sizing of hospitals – closing beds and laying off thousands of health care workers – right now. Lankin claims that in the worst-case scenario, layoffs this year wouldn’t exceed 2,000, but the Ontario Hospital Association claims 14,000 jobs are in jeopardy. Phillips believes it will be hard to estimate job loss: “It is hard to even record the number of nursing jobs lost, because for every full-time job cut many part-time and relief positions go with it.”

Chaos will result when people who depend on hospitals have nowhere to turn but the inadequate community health care services, which are uneven and narrowly focussed. To make things worse, the same funding restrictions placed on hospitals have also hit the services that are supposed to save the day.

“I haven’t heard of any change in the quality of care. It is just too early,” says Phillips about the effect of layoffs on hospitals. “Right now the nurses are picking up the slack, but soon they will burn out. I don’t feel confident this government has the management skills to do this. I’d like to see a plan in place before moving people into the community.”

Training for laid-off hospital workers will have to come from the $160-million allocated for retraining workers laid off by cities, universities and school boards – all of whom are coping with record-low budget increases.

In February, Lankin appealed to hospitals to do everything in their power to make layoffs painless and to trim doctors and administrators first. But the NDP has yet to pass legislation that would bind hospital boards to make the right cuts. The boards operate at arm’s length from government and continue to make unnecessary decisions, ignoring the NDP’s moral pleas.

Rosanna Pellizzari, a member of the Medical Reform Group and chair of the Ontario Association of Health Centres, wants better community accountability for hospitals before they lay off staff and cut services: “Sometimes it makes sense to bring people to hospitals. Planning must be at the community level and open and democratic. Health care workers, who are mostly women, should not be scapegoated for financial problems. Doctors and management should go first. Physicians experience very little unemployment.”

Carol Kushner, co-author of the book Second Opinion, which evaluates the country’s medical system, sees chaos resulting from the conflicting agendas of governments and health care reformers: “Will the tremendous contradictions of institutions be transferred to the community? The federal government is rapidly draining money from medicare while provincial governments are having a hard time. This hasn’t produced extra funds for re-allocating services to the community – which was recommended by reformers. You have to ask: who is going to fall through the cracks?”

Find in a library:

Worldcat.org: Health care in danger: worrying breakdown in Ontario reforms, This Magazine, 26, Oct-Nov 1992, 6

ISSN: 1491-2678

OCLC Number / Unique Identifier: 8250614985

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Critics Blast Government Long-Term Care Reforms

“They cut hospital beds and lay off staff without having community health care services ready…”

“When the elderly… decide that facility-based care is the best option, they can’t get it…”

By David South

Today’s Seniors (Canada), October 1992

Seniors should keep a close eye on the Ontario government’s proposed long-term care reforms. According to critics, the plan has more than a few bugs. 

The term long-term care encompasses an often confusing web of services, from home-provided community services like meals on wheels to institutional care including homes for the aged, seniors’ apartments and chronic care hospitals. 

Like other provincial governments, the Rae government is trying to rein in escalating health care costs – and long-term care services aren’t immune. They hope that emphasizing prevention and healthy lifestyles, plus providing more services in the home and community, will reduce reliance and expensive health care services like high-cost drugs, surgery and high-tech equipment. According to health minister Frances Lankin, this will preserve medicare in the age of fiscal restraint. 

The government has outlined seven goals for its long-term care reforms: prepare for the coming surge in the over-65 population; cater services to better reflect the cultural, racial and linguistic make-up of Ontario; eliminate confusion over what services are available; involve the community in planning so that services reflect community needs; lessen reliance on institutions; provide support to family caregivers; tighten regulations governing government-run and private facilities; and improve working conditions for the largely female caregiving workforce. 

But many people are wary of the proposed reforms and worry that if they aren’t managed properly, some seniors will fall through the cracks. 

A report released in July by the Senior Citizens’ Consumer Alliance for Long-Term Care Reform blasts the government for being simplistic in its plans. The report compares the present reforms to the failed attempt in the 1970s to move psychiatric care out of the institutions and into communities by closing 1,000 beds. The tragic result in that case was homelessness for many psychiatric patients who found community services unable to help, or, more often than not, non-existent. The Alliance fears seniors – the biggest users of health services – could fall victim to reforms in a similar way. 

Emily Phillips, president of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, is blunt: “The NDP’s plans sound good on paper, but they can’t give a budget or direct plan on how they hope to carry out reforms. They are going about things backwards. They cut hospital beds and lay off staff without having community health care services ready.”

The Ontario Association of Non-Profit Homes and Services for Seniors (OANHSS) – which operates charitable and municipal homes for the aged, non-profit seniors’ apartments. chronic care hospitals and community services serving over 100,000 seniors – says 4,300 seniors are on waiting lists for their member facilities right now, and things won’t improve if the government continues to reduce the number of long-term care beds. 

But Lankin insists that beds are available in homes and hospitals and it is funding formulas that prevent them from being filled. 

To help carry out its reforms, the NDP will reallocate $647 million by 1996-97. In bureaucratese, this funding is said to be “back-end loaded”, or mostly spent close to 1996-97. 

The problem with this, according to the Alliance, is that the government has already embarked on a radical “downsizing” of hospitals, closing beds and laying off health care workers. Lankin claims the worst case scenario for layoffs this year won’t exceed 2,000, but the Ontario Hospital Association claims 14,000 jobs are in jeopardy. Because of this, the Alliance wants money to be spent earlier to avoid gaps in services. 

Phillips believes it will be hard to pin down the extent of job losses. “For every full-time job cut many part-time and relief positions go with it,” she says. 

Dr. Rosanna Pellizzari, a member of the Medical Reform Group and chair of the Ontario Association of Health Centres, wants better community accountability for hospitals before they lay off staff and cut services. “Sometimes it makes sense to bring people to hospitals,” she says. “Planning must be at the community level, open and democractic. Health care workers, who are mostly women, should not be scapegoated for financial problems. Doctors and management should go first. Physicians experience very little unemployment.” 

Many nursing and charitable homes for the aged are facing financial crisis. According to OANHSS, six charitable homes for the aged have closed since 1987 due to deficits. In 30 homes, the total annual deficit has increased 125 per cent since 1987. The Ministry of Health recently allocated special funds of $8.1 million to ensure these facilities survive until January, when a new, needs-based funding formula will be introduced. It is intended to better match the actual care requirements of the 59,000 consumers living in long-term care facilities. 

Michael Klejman, executive director of OANHSS, agrees with helping seniors to stay in their homes. “But when the elderly and their care-givers in Ontario decide that facility-based care is the best option, they simply can’t get it,” he notes. “We know from experience that many of them remain in acute care hospital beds with a cost to the province of about four times what it would cost them to fund a long-term care bed. And many, unfortunately, remain in their own flats or apartments at considerable risk to themselves, isolated and dependent on a patchwork of services.” 

Beatrix Robinow, who worked on the Alliance’s report, was not impressed with the government’s initial plans, especially the proposed creation of 40 service coordination agencies whose mandate would be to control the delivery of home care services to seniors. Robinow thinks this would add to the confusion and just be another layer of bureaucracy. Many people who appeared at the Alliance’s public hearings expressed confusion over how the long-term care system worked. 

Robinow says that the government could save money by trimming the bureaucracy and using present organizations like the little-known District Health Councils. 

“District Health Councils have nothing to do with social services,” says Robinow. “But we want them to be expanded to include long-term care and general supervision of community services. We are waiting to hear if they are interested. I would urge the government to make sure that services are in place before pushing people out of institutions.” 

The health minister is cautious about the government’s next steps. “The Alliance’s report has been very helpful,” she says. “We are in the process of developing options. Two other ministers are involved and we also need to take this through Cabinet.

“Ontario is much larger and more complex (than other provinces). The range of services is more developed. We also have a mess in jurisdictions between municipalities and the province. And in Ontario there isn’t a concensus that this is the way to go. 

“We have been doing a lot of rationalization and streamlining for longer than other provinces. Most thinking people looking at the situation agree that doing nothing would hurt the system. It is not sustainable at present. You hear a lot of things about user fees. That would be the slippery slope for medicare. That would make people think they could buy better services.”

Ironically, user fees were recently endorsed by the Canadian Medical Association, suggesting the minister will have a fight on her hands with angry doctors. 

Amidst all the confusion, Dr. Perry Kendall was appointed on Aug. 24 as the provincial government’s special advisor on long-term care and population health. This veteran of both the City of Toronto as Medical Officer of Health – and the groundbreaking Victoria Health Project in British Columbia (often seen as the model for community services to seniors) seems well qualified. “One problem in the past has been the creation of smaller and smaller organizations every time somebody felt the system was not responsive to their needs,” he says. “This created organizational chaos. The challenge  now is to get all the organizations back together to share their expertise.”

Lankin says she hopes to have a conference on the reforms in the fall. 

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