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Read Making a Killing

home / healthcare / in the media

The Los Angeles Times
Dec 19, 2003

by Steve Lopez; POINTS WEST

A Skybox Reality -- No Cash, No Arnold

It was a stakeout, and Pat Parker, an eagle-eyed grandmother from Orange, missed nothing.

She leaned over the railing in the halls of Staples Center during a Laker game, zeroing in on everything that moved. Her husband, Dave, took up another position 50 yards away, covering the southern flank.

Sooner or later, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would come by, trolling the skyboxes for cash. The Parkers didn't have the required $10,000 minimum donation, but they had a story, and they were determined to ambush the governor and tell it to him.

Fat chance, I thought.

Schwarzenegger would have an entourage and the Parkers wouldn't get within 10 feet of him. Sure, Dave voted for Arnold, and Pat voted Republican too -- for Sen. Tom McClintock.

But they didn't have a fat check.

"People like the Parkers don't have access because they don't have $10,000 to pay for face-time with the governor," said Jamie Court. It was Court, of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, who got the Parkers into a nearby skybox so they could make a run at the governor.

"He did make promises not to let special interests get in the way," said the bespectacled Pat, "and we're here to remind him of that."

Specifically, the Parkers had a beef about health care, and they've been none too pleased to see the governor pocketing big donations from the industry they want him to clamp down on.

Dave, 64, got laid off two years ago from his job in electronics sales, and went on COBRA, the government program that extends medical coverage for those who lose their jobs.

But it ain't cheap.

The Parkers paid $663 a month to Blue Cross, and then without explanation, the monthly premium was hiked to $940.

The more the Parkers looked into it, the higher their blood pressure soared. WellPoint Health Networks Inc., which owns Blue Cross, reported that profits had skyrocketed while they were gouging the Parkers.

Then they found out that a Blue Cross exec had given $21,200, the maximum allowable donation, to Schwarzenegger, as did several other health-care poobahs. Money in hand, would the governor be inclined to play hardball with HMOs?

The Parkers also learned that while they struggle to make their monthly premium, WellPoint CEO Leonard Schaeffer would be worth as much as $350 million in a proposed merger.

Enough already.

Pat and Dave sat down and composed a "Dear Governor" letter to hand-deliver during the Laker game.

"The health-care industry is sticking it to everybody and it must be regulated," they wrote. "The industry preys on those that are especially weak."

Then they laid on the guilt.

"Dave voted for you because you are someone who values good ideas."

So why not regulate health-care premiums and force companies to justify increases, as 26 other states do?

Why not standardize hospital fees, like the state of Maryland?

Why not buy prescription drugs in bulk to keep costs down, like Canada?

In their three-page letter, the Parkers told Schwarzenegger they believed in him and were counting on him to do the right thing, even if it might offend certain political donors, whom they listed:

"Blue Cross executive vice president Dennis Weinberg ($21,200), PacifiCare ($31,200), Lawrence Higby CEO of Apria Healthcare Group ( $31,200), Baxter Health Care ($21,200), Allergan ($20,000), and Johnson & Johnson ($21,200)."

And now back to the stakeout.

Jamie Court had a list of five skyboxes Schwarzenegger was expected to visit. High rollers were invited to pony up a minimum of $10,000 to shake hands with Big Boy, all the way up to the maximum $21,200.

With a dozen or so people in each box representing various interests, Schwarzenegger -- isn't he the guy who said he didn't need anybody's money? -- stood to clear as much as $1 million.

Gray Davis would be proud.

Just before halftime, a cluster of security guards and advance men appeared. And suddenly, there was Gov. Schwarzenegger, who ducked into a skybox.

Pat and Dave hurried over and stationed themselves outside the box, even as two or three security guards gave them a wary eye. The ruse was that Pat wanted an autograph and Dave wanted to take a picture.

No autographs, guards told Pat.

They had no idea who they were dealing with.

When Schwarzenegger emerged, tightly surrounded by ushers, guards and henchmen, they made a mad dash for a nearby exit.

Pat was not intimidated. As she darted into the phalanx in white pearls and a red holiday sweater, I feared for her. But she was nimble, quick and powerful, looking more like Shaq than a mother of five and grandmother of 11.

Pat was briefly knocked sideways in the mosh pit, and I thought she might go down. But she had an important message to deliver and failure was not an option, as Arnold often says. She bulled ahead, inching closer to Schwarzenegger with the letter extended.

Finally, she was within reach. But as she handed the letter to the Gov, an aide whisked it away.

"I don't think they expected an old lady to move that fast," Pat said before camping out at the next skybox for another shot at the governor.

The guards wanted no part of her by then. One of the governor's advance men took another copy of the letter and promised to deliver it to Schwarzenegger.

One week later, Pat is still waiting for his call.


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