Steve Lopez of LA Times on Melanie Winter's operation
She's hip to health insurance reform
August 1, 2007
"It's probably not a good idea to go into surgery without having paid
the anesthesiologist yet," Melanie Winter joked in the admissions
office at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center on Monday. But her options were
Winter had kidded that she might have to marry one of the volunteers
at her nonprofit agency so she could use his health insurance to get a
A friend had suggested she move to Canada for a while and take
advantage of its national healthcare system.
Instead, having gone nearly 20 years without insurance and unable to
buy it because of her preexisting condition, Winter hobbled up to the
doors of Cedars-Sinai with the help of a walker, prepared to pay
$40,000 for hip replacement surgery.
"Your doctor's name?" asked a clerk.
"Penenberg," said Winter, 49, a lanky former dancer and actress, as
she winced away the pain.
David Brunk, a Mount Washington resident and volunteer at Winter's
agency, the River Project, had driven her to the hospital and helped
with her bags. He said he and others were grateful for the lead role
Winter had played in turning the Taylor Yard railroad property in
Cypress Park into Rio de Los Angeles State Park.
"She has a great spirit and has been doing this work for not much pay,
and she doesn't even live near the park," Brunk said of the Studio
City resident, who has worked on open-space and river preservation
projects for years.
That's why, when Winter needed surgery, people came through, Brunk
said. Grateful Cypress Park residents and other supporters held a
fundraising party with live mariachi music. Friends set up the Melanie
Winter Medical Fund at http://www.hip4mel.net .
It's crazy that it came to this, but with roughly $25,000 raised,
Winter had enough to make a down payment and schedule the surgery.
In the admissions office, a clerk said she needed to pony up a $250
fee before she would be taken to pre-op. Winter insisted she had made
arrangements to pay it later, and after a bit of back-and-forth, the
Winter says she earns too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough
to be able to afford a good health insurance plan, even if she could
find a company willing to cover her.
"It's insane," Winter said, telling me she was last covered as a
member of the Screen Actors Guild. Since then, she has tried to live a
healthy lifestyle and avoided medical care except when absolutely
necessary. In rare cases, she paid cash for doctor visits or went to
an L.A. County hospital.
As her hip problem grew worse, Winter ruled out county hospitals for
surgery. Even if they would agree to treat her, it would take months
to get in, and she was leery of trusting a public hospital for a
procedure that would determine how well she gets around the rest of
"Among my friends and colleagues, there are so many similar stories,"
Winter said. Just trying to navigate the healthcare system is enough
to make you ill, she said, adding that she doesn't trust any reform
plan that doesn't remove the profiteering of the insurance and
"Hillary [Clinton] has backed way off," Brunk said, referring to the
New York senator and presidential candidate who has gone from brave
reformer to a favorite recipient of donations from the health
In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and key legislators are
darlings of the same special interests, which explains why there's
often talk of reform, much of it halfhearted, but little follow-through.
Jerry Flanagan of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights
noted that two of the biggest state senate recipients of insurance
company donations, Democrats Gloria Negrete McLeod of Chino and Leland
Yee of San Francisco, did not cast votes last month on a bill that
would have regulated insurance premiums. The bill died in the Senate
Flanagan is drafting an initiative that would give voters a chance to
do what legislators don't have the stomach for, despite growing,
multibillion-dollar profits by the insurance industry and consumer
The initiative calls for a 20% rollback of health insurance rates and
regulation of future increases. It would bar insurance companies from
refusing to sell policies based on a person's health, something that's
already law in nine other states. And it would phase in universal care
by offering all residents access to a public insurance pool, forcing
private companies to lower their rates to stay competitive.
"If you don't have coverage from your employer, in California,
insurance companies can refuse to sell you insurance for any price,"
Flanagan said. "If you've had allergies or asthma, you could be denied."
You can read the initiative and offer your own comments by going to
dog.org and clicking on "Patient Revolt." Flanagan, who is still
tinkering with it, said he expected to submit the initiative to the
state in the next couple of weeks, and it could be circulated for
signatures by late summer or early fall. If it qualifies, it would be
on the ballot in 2008, either in June or November.
Winter, by the way, said an initiative might be the only way to
restore sanity. And if California can show the way, maybe the rest of
the nation will follow.
With a little more time to heal and retire her debt, Winter might be
able to lead the parade. She reports that Monday's surgery went well,
and on Tuesday afternoon she took her first steps with the new hip.