Health Care stories: Let’s get real

President Obama addressed a joint session of Congress tonight to talk about health care reform (transcript here). I’m not afraid to admit that I cheered at times and I cried when he talked about the late Sen. Kennedy and the “character of our country.” I know the conservative chorus is already spinning.

I like Obama’s calm, firm resolve on this and many issues. I welcome a president who is measured, unafraid to show his intelligence and education (not a fan of “strategery”) and is deliberate. But I also agree with my professional colleague Steve Friess who so eloquently put it this way on his facebook page, “Dear President Obama: Show, Don’t Tell. You’re Telling. Why not bring out impacted average Americans onto the dais one by one by one all night long and then dare Congress to look these people in the face and tell them to just go somewhere a…nd die? Pick ’em from swing states for all I care. But SHOW, don’t tell.”

And debate (if you can call it that) and rhetoric and teabaggers are all we’ve been hearing about and from lately. (Even tonight one congressman was so uncouth to shout at the president during his speech.) If you’re like me, your e-mail in-box has been flooded for weeks with messages saying, “Tell President Obama: I want a strong public health insurance plan,” and “[Insert Congress/Senate Member] needs to hear your story,” and “We can’t afford to wait!”

I could trot out dozens of stories of everyday, working Americans who are struggling. People who have been laid off in the economic downturn, lost their health insurance and are in the middle of getting foreclosed on. That’s lost job, lost health coverage and lost shelter all in one shot! I could tell those stories easily. Some of those folks are dear friends. Some of those folks are represented in my family, my neighbors, my co-workers, my husband’s co-worker … tax-paying, patriotic, hard-workers every one of them.

Instead, I’m going to tell you a health care story from my own life. (And hell, if Obama or my representatives want to call me and talk to me about it, I’ll take the call. But, trust me, nobody like that ever calls me.)

As many of my regular readers know, I grew up poor, as in frequently on welfare/food stamps/free school lunch/et al. I was a child during Reagan’s “trickle-down-economics” era, and believe me, none of it was trickling down to my house. For many years, it was customary that you got one present on your birthday or Christmas. You better like that present because it was all you were going to get. One year I got a clock-radio because then my little second-grader ass could get up for school myself (because my parents were already at work). (So, yeah, before you talk about lazy, poor people who don’t work — my parents were not punks. They busted their butts.)

So, my parents worked full-time jobs but didn’t have health insurance (or couldn’t afford what was offered). Most often, if I got sick (I was an only child until the age of 8), it was all about Tussin. For those who don’t know from first-hand experience (or a Chris Rock special), Tussin is generic Robitussin. If you think the name-brand version tastes like ass, the generic is not much better. As a kid I frequently got ear aches, strep throat, etc. And the first-round treatment was always Tussin. My mom would hope and pray that she didn’t have to take me to the doctor. If she did, it was all out-of-pocket (and time off work to take me). One time I had such a bad ear ache that when she finally took me to the doctor, she had to ask my grandmother for money to pay for it. My mother didn’t hold out because she was cruel. She hoped for the best — not another doctor bill she couldn’t pay.

When I was a teenager — during the first term of the Clinton years — my mom and I were living in Anchorage, Alaska on our own after her divorce. Like many post-divorce, single-mothers, her household income plummeted. We barely had enough to live on. She was working full-time, we had a house-cleaning maid service on the side and I worked an after-school job at a local department store. All the money the two of us made, we pooled together to just scrape by each month. Often we had to choose between groceries and paying the electric bill (heat is pretty crucial in an Alaskan winter). My mom couldn’t afford to sign both of us up for the health insurance offered through her work. (Half the time she couldn’t afford to have just herself insured, which was a lower rate than adding a dependent.)

While I was a much healthier teenager than child, inevitably I got sick. The worst was when I got a bladder infection, which got to the point that I could not control my bladder. I found this out when I went to the store where I worked to see if I could get an advance on my paycheck (I couldn’t) so I could go to the low-income clinic (it wasn’t free). On the way out of the store, I lost control of my bladder and peed myself, to my own intense humiliation. … My mom didn’t have any money. Things were getting progressively worse and I was in constant pain. Finally, a neighbor from across the hall, offered to pay for me to go to the doctor. (An independent taxicab-driver, my neighbor, who was also uninsured, was dipping into her rent money to help me.) So, of course, the end of the story was that I went to the clinic, got some full-price antibiotics and eventually felt much better.

These are real stories from my real life. It’s not glamorous. In fact, it’s humiliating. I have only enjoyed the benefit of adequate (somewhat) affordable health insurance during the past 10 years of my nearly 33 years of life (my birthday is in 3 weeks). And that has only come to me through my husband, who has been lucky enough to have employers who have offered good benefits (unlike most of my employers, who have not).

But those benefits are not perfect. And they are by no means free. Or free from hassles! Last year, when we traveled to Anchorage to be with my father-in-law in his final moments of life — taken by pancreatic cancer — and to attend his funeral, I realized that I had run out of one of my allergy medications. I was in Anchorage in June — EVERYTHING was in full, pollen-fever, bloom. If crying my eyes out in grief wasn’t enough, I couldn’t breathe through either nostril. I needed those pills! Frankly, I couldn’t handle one more thing being difficult or crappy. But there are no Walgreens drugstores in Alaska (where I go for my prescriptions) and my doctor is not licensed in Alaska, which he would need to be in order to write me a new prescription to be filled there. So, in the middle of grief and funerals and writing obituaries (because I’m the writer in the family), I had to find a doctor, a pharmacy and get my pills. And, of course, my insurance rejected covering said costs because I was “out of network.” I had to pay full-price for everything until I could go home and fight with my insurance company to reimburse me. (By the way, they refused to ever reimburse me because I had gone to unapproved doctors/pharmacies outside my network. I explained the “unexpectedness” of death to no avail. Their logic? I could have planned ahead and gotten my scripts filled at home first — but they won’t cover filling a script before the designated time — and they won’t fill it away from home at the designated time — aaaaarrrrgh!)

Now, was I going to die if I didn’t get my allergy pills? No. Was I fortunate enough to be in better financial health, pardon the pun, than I was as a child so I could (sort of) afford to be jerked around by my insurance company? I guess (although $225 for allergy pills doesn’t quite seem “affordable” no matter what your income bracket).

But you tell me, isn’t a system where an accountant can tell me that I can’t get the benefits I already pay for because of an arbitrary (and Catch-22-inspired) rule unfair? This wasn’t a case where I had been diagnosed with a terrible illness and then dropped from my insurance (which happens every day). This was corporate greed run amok with my health, my health care and my health insurance!

Frankly, I’m sick (pun intended) of the whole thing! I want real, affordable, medically sound, health care for all already! I’m tired of people talking about “bureaucrats” making life or death decisions — as opposed to billionaire health insurance CEOs … well, actually the accountants in cubicles who work for them? Guess what, Turkeys? Those are the assholes making the choices now. You’re life is already in someone’s capitalist hands! (And by the way, you’re already a part of a subsidized system.) SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP! Just shut your ignorant, fear-mongering, propaganda-spreading mouths already! (And if you’re serious about no government-run health care, then I guess we better shut down all VA hospitals/benefits, all health care for the troops and all health care programs like Medicare/Medicaid or those for teachers or …)

Enough talk! It’s time to get real! It is not hyperbole to say that people’s lives are at stake! Tonight, when Obama said that no one should ever be in the position to tell a loved one that there is a treatment available, but “I can’t afford it.” That’s real, people!

When my father-in-law was diagnosed with terminal cancer two years ago this month, he told me point-blank that if he had no insurance he would not be able to afford the $10,000+ chemo treatments and associated drugs he took to increase the quality of the last months of his life. A dying man told me that he wouldn’t leave his family with insurmountable debt to pay. I can tell you that tears still well up in my eyes as I think about that conversation with him.  He counted himself lucky that he didn’t have to make that decision. As terrible as his ordeal was, at least he had good health insurance and good health care. But at the same time he was going through his cancer battle, someone at his church was facing a similar situation. She didn’t have insurance.

It’s not fair. It’s not right. It’s got to change — not in a little while, not next president, not “someday.” It’s time to change things for the better — for everyone. (Including women’s reproductive health.)

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