“I thought I was going to die.”

20170113_141714

Called my Congressperson, my Senators, and Senator Mitch McConnell to oppose the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

This is a long blog post.  Bear with me…
—-
This one is personal for me. In my professional life, my coworkers and I facilitate the ability of people in my community to access health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. Although I don’t work directly with a huge number of clients myself, I keep my skills and knowledge up to date so that I can speak to the realities “on the ground.” I hear stories every day- either directly from clients or through my coworkers. I’ll share just one today – one of the many that has stuck with me.

Last year, a young man called my office after getting my phone number from his friend’s mom. He told me he was uninsured and needed to see a doctor. I set up an appointment to meet with him a few days later. Alex (not his real name, of course) was kind of a hipster-looking fellow, with a tidy beard and round eyeglasses. I met him at the front reception desk, and walked him back to the little interview booth in the back of the building, after stopping first to scan his i.d. and paystub at the copy machine. Then we sat down to complete his application online at the computer on the desk between us. Alex was 28 years old, living with a buddy, working construction for a different buddy, but admittedly underemployed. I got the impression that he was pulling his life together after a rough patch – maybe a broken heart and relationship, brush with the law, or some episode of poor decision-making. He told me that he had had a major heart attack at age 23, and had almost died. Alex had a specific heart condition that was unusual for a young man. He was generally healthy in the everyday sense of the word, but he told me he was supposed to be under the regular care of a doctor. Because he lacked insurance, though, he had not seen a doctor in a long while.

We completed the application process in about 20 minutes. (Because, yes, after over a decade of this kind of work, I am just that surprisingly efficient with government bureaucracy…) I logged off the computer and said to Alex : “Okay, we’re done! Your coverage will likely be backdated to the first of the month. You should go make that appointment with the health clinic.” He looked startled. “That’s it?” he asked. “Yes,” I told him. “That’s it.”

I walked him back to the front reception desk and out to the lobby of the building. I offered my hand and told him to call me if anything with his health insurance coverage did not go as planned. Alex looked at me a moment, and then his eyes filled with tears. My eyes got wide, too. Not sure what to do with this weeping fellow. He leaned forward and gave me a hug. He was literally sobbing. I had to actually rummage around on the receptionist’s desk to find a box of tissues for him. I patted him awkwardly. He was sitting down at that point, trying to pull himself together. “I’m sorry,” he kept apologizing. “This is just really emotional for me. It’s just… ” he looked up at me- a middle-aged government worker that he had met for the first time just a half-hour ago. “I thought I was going to die.”

I tell this story not because it is remarkable or unusual, but because it is so ordinary. My coworkers and I have worked with hundreds of families who need health insurance coverage and they all have stories – maybe not exactly like Alex’ story and usually without the sobbing, but stories of fear and relief nonetheless.

Whether warranted or not, Alex lived with a fear that he was going to drop dead because he didn’t have health coverage. We should fear death because we think our plane might crash. We should fear death because we think a mountain lion might attack us when we are hiking. These are acceptable, if irrational, reasons to fear death. But in my opinion, nobody should fear death because of a lack of health insurance coverage. Not in the wealthiest nation in the world.

I also tell this story because Alex is unlikely to be calling his Senator himself to tell his own story. He is too young, too scattered, and too preoccupied with getting his life together. So, today, I call my elected representatives on his behalf. I call on behalf of Alex, and on behalf of the millions of people across this nation, many of whom are afraid and ill and preoccupied and disenfranchised, who have health insurance coverage because of the Affordable Care Act. I call because they need me to call. They need me.

And they need you.