Ruth Walker, fifty-four, is part-owner of an art shop called Bluestem on South Ninth St. She and her partners scour arts and crafts fairs across the state, looking for the best work to sell in the store. The merchandise from painters, potters, quilters, and jewelry makers is of exceptional quality. “We don’t provide insurance for our three part-time employees,” she said. “We hope they have other insurance.” Having lived for a time in Australia and Great Britain and seen how efficient and easy it was to get full care, she believes “it’s the job of a government to provide health care.” Walker says she can’t believe the hue and cry over the public option. “I’m just disgusted,” she told me.
How would reform affect her and her business? “I don’t know,” she said. “I assume people would benefit, but I really don’t know how it would affect me. I don’t know what health reform is about except that insurance companies have to take everyone.” Walker did question whether the Democrats were forceful enough. “I don’t think the Democrats have protested enough,” she explained. “I’m concerned our senator will be bowled over by the negativity.” Presumably she meant Sen. Claire McCaskill, who had some rough going at a town hall meeting this summer. So what’s going to happen in the end? I asked.
“Nothing,” Walker replied.
Vicki Smith, age fifty-nine, is one of Walker’s employees who does not have insurance. A fiber artist who works with paper, Smith has had coverage off and on during her life. “I work very hard to stay healthy,” she said. “I don’t go to the doctor unless I have to, and then I pay for it.” Smith was pretty knowledgeable about the reform effort, although she admitted she didn’t know many specifics. “It’s to make it available to people who can’t afford it,” she explained. “It would be cost efficient and non-discriminatory.”
How would reform affect her? I asked. “I don’t know, other than it would make it available if I need it,” she answered. She had never heard the term “individual mandate,” but worried that she couldn’t afford to buy the required coverage if she didn’t qualify for a subsidy, as many people will not. “Currently the cost is prohibitive for someone who works part-time and has a preexisting condition,” she told me. Finally, she said: “It would be cheaper to pay the penalty than buy the coverage.”
I walked into El Rancho, a restaurant on Broadway that bills itself as a fast, authentic Mexican eatery. According to Inside Columbia magazine, El Rancho was the area’s best place for Mexican food in 2009. I was hoping to chat with the owner and the staff making taco salads and enchiladas. But it was getting on toward lunch time, and everyone was busy, so instead I tried to talk to some diners. Many did not want to talk about health care.
A family from East St. Louis was in town delivering their nineteen-year-old daughter to college. “At this time, health reform is not important,” said the wife, who refused to give her name. “I don’t know a whole lot about it, and I don’t feel like it’s affecting us.”
Her husband chimed in. “Basically it’s just kind of fuzzy to everybody,” he said.
Did they want to know more, I pressed. “Not at this time,” said his wife. “I don’t want to know more. It has been in the news. If we were really concerned, we could find out about it.”