I’ll admit, it was a bit conspicuous. After over a year of posts comparing facts in health reform, looking at private versus public insurance plans, even meeting with President Bill Clinton to discuss health care, the week the monumental new legislation passes, I am silent.
I know, right?
Here’s the thing. I wanted to comment, to turn on the analytical part of my brain that has logged into press calls and covered health care summits.
However, I was too busy being a patient to attend to this blog. More specifically, I watched late-night cable coverage of the vote from my hospital bed, where hours of stacked medications, oxygen, and all sorts of pwerful drugs tried to stabilize me. I managed one paltry Tweet about it, but my IV beeped as soon as I moved my arm to type and the whole not-getting-enough-air thing made me foggy.
When you’re working so hard for breath, there is little room for anything else.
In a strange way, perhaps that is somewhat fitting. Over the past few weeks, it seems like the rhetoric, the scare tactics, the fighting over funding and abortion and so many other flash points have totally taken the focus away from the one group at the heart of this debate: patients.
“The only people who are happy with their health care are either rich or healthy,” I joked to a relative, one who is vehemently opposed to health care reform (or, at least this version of it). But there is truth there-most health plans are designed for healthy people who rarely need to use them, who do not have to wage appeals and write letters and make so many important life decisions based mainly on the availability of those plans. If health insurance is something you only have to think about when it’s time for open enrollment, then it is a lot easier to shove it off as someone else’s problem.
If you’re fortunate enough to have chronic illness and can afford the platinum plans where you do not worry about annual caps or having treatments denied then you do not live with the same sense of precariousness and vulnerability millions of Americans do.
Let me be clear about this: I have reasonably good insurance and have always been fortunate to have reasonably good insurance. I fight my battles regarding medical necessity (complicated by having rare diseases, for sure) and I still pay a lot of money out of pocket but I cannot complain. However, whether I’m feeling okay or lying in a hospital bed, I work seven days a week in order to get those benefits-a full-time job, part-time jobs, consulting work, and book-writing. I have made huge, career-altering decisions based primarily on health benefits. Physically, emotionally, mentally, I have made compromises and adjustments in the name of health insurance. A lapse in coverage has always been a catastrophic thought for me.
For me, simply being born tagged me with the label of “pre-existing condition” and for three decades I have lived underneath the bureaucratic burden of that title. Knowing that is one fear patients with existing chronic illness don’t have to live with anymore is huge. Knowing that down the line, I could have more flexibility in terms of choosing career options based on proclivity and preference and not benefits is equally huge.
I find so much of the drama around this bill ironic. Some frame it as a right to life issue but because I excel at being the devil’s advocate, what about the lives of millions of Americans that will end too quickly because of lack of appropriate care? Some focus solely on the economic issues around the legislation, but those of us who’ve been paying attention to chronic disease long before it became the hot-button issue for discordance and grandstanding also know that we already spend 75 cents out of every health care dollar on chronic illness and that prevention is much less expensive than the complicated interventions that are standard operating procedure right now.
But honestly? Right now I can’t even start unraveling all these threads.
Intellectually I understand the concerns of, say, small business owners or entrepreneurs worried about how the bill is funded. I understand people who fear the government may not be up to the task of administering such a broad program. I understand this legislation is far from perfect, and as we've seen here in Massachusetts, I know that when you implement a sweeping change you need to prepare for the consequences, both intended and unintended.
But all of the rhetoric, analysis, or debate in the world does not change the fact that for many, many patients out there, the debate is anything but rhetorical and the consequences extreme.
I’d done everything right to manage my conditions but still ended up in the hospital. I can only imagine the bill for the diagnostic tests, the x-rays, the IV meds, the nebulizers, the pills, etc. But what is truly unimaginable is what would happen if I had to pay for that hospital stay completely out of pocket.
My house, my health, my family, everything I’ve worked so hard to maintain, would all be threatened.
As I lay there, covered in EKG leads and medical tape and beeping from multiple monitors, the ticker tape reports of the "Baby-killer" outburst and protests flickered across the screen. I adjusted my oxygen and raised the volume a little bit louder as our leaders began to speak.
It is easy to be reactionary and inflammatory when you have the luxury of health, I thought. When you’re consumed with survival mode, suddenly things are a lot more simplified.
As much as I don’t want to be defined by this role, I am a patient. And what better place to be reminded of our vulnerability in this system than in the hospital?
I am one of the lucky ones. I know when the bill arrives or I need to schedule another follow-up appointment with a specialist that these events will be insignificant.
But shouldn’t it be that way for everyone else out there trying to survive?
Hopefully soon I’ll have something more insightful or analytic to add, but for now I am compelled to focus on the one thing that seems to get shoved to the side in all of this: the needs of the patient with existing illness.