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Many small voices can make a big difference

The roadside presidential primary poll was as scientific _ and probably as accurate _ as any. Honk once if you're for Bush; two honks mean Buchanan.

The poll was the Tuesday morning brainchild of a clever New Hampshire radio station. The cold, windblown, but grinning pollster featured on Good Morning, America was the first to admit his poll didn't mean a thing.

What poll does?

Still, the results from U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis' recent mail-back poll are interesting to note. The congressman says 20,000 people responded. That is only 2.6 percent of the 759,792 people the 9th District, which includes most of Pasco County; but the kind of people who take the time to respond to written polls are the kind who work in campaigns and get out to vote. Their voices count.

The overriding concern in the Bilirakis poll is the same one I hear when I visit organizations across the North Suncoast: health care.

Rising health costs are the No. 1 problem facing women, the respondents said. In fact, the respondents said the cost of health came close to the top as the entire nation's biggest problem _ ahead of crime and drugs, education, international competition, environment, transportation and even excessive taxation.

How to fix the health care problem? Eighty-two percent opted either for national health care or a Canadian-type system, where each province has its own program.

Some Florida legislators aren't waiting for Congress to do something about health care. Two of them have filed bills to establish universal health care for everyone who has lived in Florida for at least six months.

Plan backers say it won't cost any more than current programs and won't increase taxes. A New Port Richey woman, Marilyn Shelt, is leading the local backers of House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 92, the health care bills, and she is convinced that the plan they propose will work.

I'm a skeptic. I had to admit to Ms. Shelt I have a hard time believing Florida can add 2.5-million people to its health care system and not raise taxes.

Ms. Shelt makes it sound simple. Medicare still will pay for people over 65. People making $20,000 a year or more will pay a monthly fee of $178 (that is less than many of us pay now). Finally, the state will have a one-payer system that will allow a big chunk of the money now used to administer multiple health care plans to pay, instead, for health care itself. That could be up to $7.7-billion a year in Florida alone, according to a Harvard University study.

This means the money paid to people who fill out insurance forms and figure out reasons why your illness isn't covered will be paid to doctors and hospitals that actually take care of people. Strangely enough, pencil-pushing positions are growing about three times as fast as the number of actual health-care providers.

Ms. Shelt is waging a grass-roots campaign. The literature she hands out looks homemade, and it is. The biggest thing in her favor is a passionate belief in her cause and an arm load of facts that appear to back up her claims.

The big fight is coming, of course, from the rich and powerful medical lobbies, including the insurance companies, plan administrators and supervisors, as well as medical professionals, who, quite naturally, fear for their jobs and levels of income.

What Marilyn Shelt needs are more people interested in pushing the Florida Legislature to pass a universal health care bill.

This is where Rep. Bilirakis' poll comes in.

If 82 percent of the 20,000 respondents favor some sort of universal health care, as Bilirakis reports, this means at least 16,400 people in this area may be willing to help Ms. Shelt push for HB1. Her telephone number is (813) 372-8812.

To be honest, HB1 may be too ambitious and idealistic to have a prayer in Tallahassee. But if anything is going to be done to help Florida's people get health care, it's going to take a clamor from thousands of little voices just like Marilyn Shelt's to overcome the big voices with the big money.

Admittedly, the Florida plan isn't the ultimate answer; in our mobile society, a national plan makes much more sense.

In the meantime, though, this could be one time when Florida can be out front with genuine action on an issue of universal concern.