Monday, January 23, 2006

“Counter Space”


County merchants have sounded an alarm. “We’re running out of space for homemade signs and donor cups on our counters,” said Noel Harmon, spokesman for the local Retailers Association.

“In a survey last month, we learned that the average checkout counter now has less than ten inches of clear space for customers to put items they want to purchase, and that space is shrinking all the time. The rest of the counter is completely taken up by homemade signs showing families facing ruin because of medical emergencies,” said Harmon.

A visit to area businesses confirmed details of the report. At Angela’s Ashtray, a popular local coffee shop, the counter held two signs and donor cups for children suffering from leukemia, one for an infant needing a kidney transplant, three for men seriously injured in ATV accidents, two for people burned in house fires, one for a stroke victim, and one for an elderly woman with Parkinson’s Disease.

Waitress Beverly Leach said, “Nobody working here has health insurance. It’s reassuring for us to look down the counter and see that there’s still space available if something should happen to us or our families. But as the amount of clear counter space keeps getting smaller, some of us are worried that it won’t be there when we need it.”

Public health officials agree. “These signs and cups are really the backbone of our health care system,” said Dr. Donald Wiseman. “If we run out of counter space, I’m not sure there are any alternatives left for families.”

Store window space is likewise facing heavy demands. Several merchants have had to remove announcements of various benefit events, such as concerts, dip-and-donates, car washes, poker runs, quilt raffles, cornbread and bean dinners, and turkey shoots in order to make room for their “Going Out of Business” signs.

“I feel so guilty taking them down,” said one proprietor, who asked to remain anonymous. “I know people are dependent on these events to save their homes, feed their families, and get the medical treatment they need.”

A spokesperson for Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) said, “Representative Capito is well aware of the counter space crisis, and is preparing to introduce legislation requiring that all checkout counters be a minimum of ten feet long.”

Critics immediately pointed to what they called a “giant loophole” in Capito’s bill. “It completely ignores the growing trend toward conveyor-belt style counters,” said Donna Watson, a health care advocate. “If you put a sign and cup on one of these counters, they’re dumped on the floor as soon as the clerk advances the belt.”

Proponents of the current health care model say that newspaper articles describing families’ plights and asking for contributions provide adequate backup for checkout counter solicitations.

But Watson disagrees. “Newspaper articles have only limited effectiveness,” she says. “They’re just no substitute for point-of-purchase appeals. When you’re standing there with your change in your hand, looking at a picture of a four-year-old girl needing treatment for leukemia, what are you going to do? Pretend you don’t see it? You read that the father works in a sawmill, the mother works at Wal-Mart, they have no health insurance, and their little girl will die if she doesn’t get the treatment.

“That’s a real ‘giving moment,’” says Watson. “That impulse is what we depend on to provide quality health care in this country. We appreciate the efforts of the Hur Herald and the Calhoun Chronicle, but newspapers alone just can’t do the job. We need more counter space.”

© Tony Russell, 2006

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