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Harnett doctors push for affordable health care

North Carolina's freshman Democratic senator said Monday that although she voted last week on a U.S. Senate proposal for universal health care, there's no guarantee she will vote for the proposal in the fall.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Vivian Howard has diabetes but no health insurance. Her part-time job offers it, but it's too costly.

"Something else in my home would go lacking, said Howard, an Erwin resident who has two children and a grandchild at home. "Something my grandbaby needs or my children need would go lacking."

Her doctors at Harnett Family Medicine, like Dr. Shankar Sanka, help her with payment plans, but now they're encouraging their peers in Harnett County to pitch in for those without medical coverage.

"We, as physicians, need to go back to our roots and what we took our oath about: To take care of sick patients, irrespective of their ability to pay," Sanka said.

Some estimates from Harnett County puts the number of uninsured at nearly 25 percent.

As head of the county's Medical and Dental Society, Dr. Shuvendu Sen wants to launch a local chapter of Project Access, a program geared toward people who have lost their jobs and their health insurance and don't qualify for government programs, like Medicaid.

Another objective of the program, already in place in Wake and Durham counties, is to keep the uninsured from using hospital emergency rooms for basic medical care. Many of them end up not paying. Doctors say that ultimately drives up health care costs for everyone.

People would be screened for eligibility, and if approved, would be covered for six months. If they don't have medical coverage by then, they can reapply for the program.

Sen said there needs to be more of a commitment from physicians to treat some patients for free.

"As of now, we're looking at three to four patients a year, which is not much," he said.

He concedes it could be difficult to persuade some doctors in Harnett County, who are already overbooked.

"To be honest with you, in today's world, in today's economy, we need to step out of the box and take it as a mission," Sen said.

According to the Center for American Progress, an estimated 1.8 million of North Carolinians – 21 percent of the population – are without health care. For those who have coverage, health insurance premiums have increased 75 percent from 2000 to 2007.

President Barack Obama, who has been traveling the nation in recent weeks to win support for his health care plan, which would extend affordable health care coverage to most of the 50 million uninsured Americans, is expected to hold a town hall meeting Wednesday at Broughton High School in Raleigh.

The live event, which starts at 11:45 a.m., will be shown in its entirety on WRAL-TV and WRAL.com.

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