Honk if You Hate HMOS!

Photo by Patricia IsheiwatPacifiCare can ignore Laura Roberts. Police can lock her up for protesting outside the HMO's Santa Ana offices. And judges can order her to stay 100 yards away from those offices. But one thing the powers that be can't stop is the widespread resentment against HMOs—a resentment demonstrated every time cars, trucks and semis pass and honk their support for Roberts; every time people stick their arms out their windows and give her a thumbs up; every time folks pull over and unload their HMO horror stories.

Roberts' battle against her former employer over what she calls wrongful termination has evolved into a crusade on behalf of everyone who believes they've been screwed by their HMO. She recruits them every time she shows up on a busy corner with signs stating "HMO PacifiCare Crucifies," "PacifiCare Hurts People," and "Secure Horizons [a PacifiCare program for seniors] Is Evil."

"People bring me pictures of loved ones who have died or lost breasts," Roberts said while standing at the corner of Fairview Road and Sunflower Avenue—two blocks from PacifiCare. "I have all races of people supporting me. Now I'm speaking for all the people who have been hurt by PacifiCare."

As we were talking, a telephone company van drove up. The driver looked angry. Then he yelled over the noise of passing traffic, "You should have a bigger sign!" He told Roberts his HMO refused to cover a kidney-stone operation his doctor said he'd die without. The physician wound up paying for the procedure—and then was dropped by the HMO.

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Roberts maintains that "99 percent" of the people she encounters support her protest. That stands in stark contrast to a report published on Sept. 25 by the California Cooperative Health Care Reporting Initiative. The survey, which canvassed 4,700 HMO members statewide, found that 58 percent give their health plans excellent overall marks.

Indeed, even Roberts concedes not everyone is down with her cause. Some in lily-white OC have taken issue with Roberts being an African-American out on the street with a protest sign. She claims she was shot at once.

"Some people have said I should get the NAACP out here because I'm black," she said. "But this is not about color."

What this is about, according to Roberts, is the fact that she cared too much. For almost three years, she worked in the member-services department of PacifiCare's dental plan. She claims workers there had quotas limiting the time they could spend on the phone with each member. She says she routinely stayed on the line for as long as it took to get the customer to feel satisfied. That, she says, is why she was fired in March 1997—for insubordination.

She's turned the personal into the political, transforming her very limited crusade against a former employer into a symbol of popular resentment against HMOs.

"I knew PacifiCare was bad, but I couldn't believe how bad until I heard all these stories," Roberts said.

In a written statement sent to the Weekly, Ben A. Singer, PacifiCare's vice president for public relations, called Roberts a "disgruntled former employee" who was "discharged for cause."

"Since that time, she has embarked on a crusade against our company, its management and our employees," Singer's statement read. "Her picketing misleads many because she never had an issue with the health plan, its coverage or benefits as a patient. She is simply a terminated employee. Upon her termination, she was informed of her rights—she could file a grievance or seek legal assistance—but she declined to do either."

Roberts says she refused the company's offer to pay her until she found new employment because taking the money would amount to agreeing with the grounds for her firing. While she wants the company to compensate her, she does not want to go to court to get a judgment. "If this was all about money, I would have got a lawyer a long time ago and got paid," she said.

Instead, since the day of her firing, she and her daughter Kanisha have driven from their Corona home two times a week or more to protest outside various PacifiCare offices, hoping someone from management will talk with them and—ultimately—apologize and promise never to mistreat employees or patients again. Once that happens, Roberts is confident of a resolution. But no one from PacifiCare, other than security guards, has approached her.

The pair has been approached by Santa Ana police, who Roberts claims unjustly jailed them for disturbing the peace last Dec. 1. (Roberts admits she was using a megaphone to broadcast her message into PacifiCare's offices on Lake Center Drive at the time.) They were released after three days behind bars with no charges filed but had to promise to stay at least 100 yards away from the building.

Roberts considers that order a violation of her constitutional rights, but, in his statement, Singer said, "Clearly, this is not Sally Field in the movie Norma Rae. It is a disgruntled former employee who was discharged for cause and who is looking to exploit public discontent over the changes in health care today."

Since PacifiCare employees and their families are covered by the HMO and receive the same level of service as any of the other 4 million members, "we share a very deep and personal commitment to doing our job well every day," added Singer.

Laura confessed that losing her job has been a financial blow to her family. And yet, she harbors no ill will toward her former co-workers.

"I still love them," she said. "I don't hate anybody. I just want justice."

Until that happens, she plans to keep picketing. She's not a churchgoer, but she says she has received a higher calling to fight the HMOs on everyone's behalf.

"I know I've got the truth in my heart," she said. "I'd not be out here this long if this were a lie. I know what I'm doing is the right thing."

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