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Supporters of health care change, including public option, rally outside Anthem insurance offices

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 23, 2009 - Lunch hour outside the downtown office of insurance giant Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield was a bit noisy Tuesday, as at least 100 supporters of changing the nation's health-care system shouted and waved signs to emphasize their concerns.

The demonstration in St. Louis was organized by the Missouri Health Care for America Now coalition and was part of a “National Day of Action” organized by pro-change groups. Locally, they include various labor groups and the Missouri Progressive Vote Coalition.

Among the most popular posters at the gathering, held in the city park in the 1800 block of Chestnut Street: "Stop Denying Healthcare. Public Option Now."

Insurance companies and their allies oppose a public option because of concern that it would destroy private insurers and lead to a government takeover of health coverage. The government now covers roughly 40 percent of Americans through Medicaid, Medicare or the Veterans Administration.

Anthem was targeted, in part, because its parent company -- Wellpoint Inc. -- is accused by critics of cancelling coverage for people who get seriously ill and actively "looking for conditions that could be used to cancel patients' coverage," according to a sheet circulating at the rally.

The rally speakers included Rebecca Tobias, who told of having to sell her home and most possessions to pay for care for her daughter, who suffers from depression, after Tobias' health insurer declined coverage and dropped her.

Rally participant Susan Cunningham, 70 and from Pacific, said she was out to help end what she viewed as the nation's shameful practice of "letting people die for lack of health care."

She noted the comments by some critics of the effort to change health care, who have said that health care is not a right. "It's insane," replied Cunningham.

A small group of the demonstrators were allowed inside the Anthem building to deliver a petition that asks the insurer to pledge "to stop denying health care," and to end any incentive programs aimed at encouraging Anthem employees to deny coverage or claims.

(A side note: The demonstrators were allowed by police to enter the building after -- in an apparent attempt to ease tensions -- the group dropped its pro-health coverage chant and began shouting in unison, "Pay police more!" The shouts prompted some smiles from the officers standing outside the building.)

A spokeswoman for Anthem said it was wasn't going to sign the petition, which it viewed as using loaded words and "intentionally making demands that could not be met."

In a statement, Anthem also said the demonstration and the national effort would "only serve to further polarize the debate over health-care reform.

"As was made clear by news reports throughout the weekend, the demonstrations were not a spontaneous reaction by Americans to the health-care reform debate, but instead were part of a heavily scripted campaign with pre-approved talking points, slogans and tactics," the Anthem statement said.

"This runs opposite to our goal of participating in a constructive, open dialogue about how to improve our health-care system and counter to the administration’s call for civil discussion of health-care reform.

"At Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Missouri, we are actively engaged in a constructive dialogue with members of Congress and the administration about how we can get health-care reform done right. We were among the first to suggest substantive changes, and we continue to advocate for sustainable, responsible reform."

Anthem also contended that "the cost effectiveness and high quality of private health insurance have been misrepresented, as have the reasons why Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Missouri and the health-insurance industry oppose government-run health care."

The insurer blamed the federal government for much of the nation's current health coverage issues. "Put simply, those covered by private insurance are already paying a premium to account for the cost-shifting which occurs today as a result of government programs setting artificially low reimbursement rates that are below the cost of doing business for hospitals and physicians. A government-run program will most certainly exacerbate this cost shift and ultimately result in decreased funding for doctors and hospitals and less choice for Americans."

(Anthem also got in a political jab of its own, but asserting in its statement that the demonstrations were backed by ACORN, a low-income advocacy group that is under fire for unrelated accusations of wrong-doing.)

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.