If you and your family are healthy, I truly am happy for you.
But if you would be willing to indulge me, I’d like to discuss with you just a few concerns from the perspective of someone who has not had such luck.
When I was a young child, I was constantly sick and shuffling between doctors. Between chronic ear infections and chronic kidney infections, I was near constantly on Amoxicillin and Septra. Thankfully, my mother had extraordinary medical benefits at the nonprofit organization at which she worked, allowing for the out-of-pocket costs to be relatively minimal. That is not true of many Americans, which is difficult enough when it is one’s own health, and devastating when it is the health of one’s child. Sadly, your health plan — and indeed, the health plans of all members of your party — have been estimated to reduce coverage and thus access to care for those who are cost-conscious, making these decisions of whether one can afford to go to the doctor all too heart-wrenching.
My final year of college, while spending a semester in Washington, DC, I fell very ill and had to go to the emergency room for what ultimately was a three-day hospital admission for a rare condition that would not become diagnosed for years later. My electrolytes were critically abnormal and no one knew why. Unfortunately, my health insurance was an HMO whose networks were broader in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I had been living and going to college, than in Washington, DC, where I was studying for the semester. Every endocrinologist in the hospital at which I was admitted was out-of-network, and rational or not, my financial concerns exceeded my medical concerns. Absent in-network specialists with whom to consult, I was discharged when no longer critical, though without a diagnosis let alone a treatment plan.
As a graduate student at Columbia University, I benefited from outstanding health insurance with which to benefit from my proximity to some of the best medical care in the nation and indeed the world. It was there that I made my long-awaited specialist appointments, and obtained my long-awaited diagnoses, all the while aggregating pre-existing conditions that would constitute grounds for insurance denials in the absence of the Affordable Care Act and in the event of a loss of university-provided insurance. And were I relying on your plan rather than coverage supplied by the university, with your refundable tax credits allotted based on age rather than income, I would have obtained only minimal coverage with which to treat these conditions despite my earning merely $28,000 per year in New York City at the time.
Following a violent assault my second year of graduate school, I fell into a deep depression and for the first time in my life, I began to spend time every week “on the couch,” in addition to having some combination of adventure and misadventure with the world of psychopharmacology. Such resources would surely have been unattainable absent insurance coverage given my limited financial means as a graduate student. With the passage of the Affordable Care Act, these highly valuable mental health benefits became requirements of far more individual and small group insurance plans, as well as all marketplace insurance plans. People around the nation still struggle to find in-network providers, with psychiatrists among the physicians least likely to accept insurance. This struggle is indicative of a need for an expansion rather than reduction of mental health benefits for our nation.And moreover, had this assault rendered me pregnant, which thankfully it did not, under the Right to Life legislation that you cosponsored your first term in the House of Representatives, you would have sentenced me to motherhood because I experienced, rather than perpetrated, a crime. That is not medicine. That is cruelty.
As a postdoctoral fellow at Washington University in St. Louis, I fell seriously ill due to a medication problem the details of which I will not go into but which left me severely hypotensive and bradychardic, among other issues. I was taken to the hospital by an ambulance that I did not call (and the insurance coverage of which has not yet been resolved), and was in the hospital for seven days, the first two of them in the intensive care unit. While all of the medical care was without regard to insurance but rather what was viewed as medical necessity — from CPR and intubation to head and abdominal CTs to EKGs to many rounds of IV medications — the costs aggregating well beyond $30,000 would have induced in me a heart attack had I not had the insurance to account for all but $300 of the expenditures. To be sure, I aggregated that week a medical history sufficient to preclude insurance coverage absent employment and the Affordable Care Act’s safeguards. Had I lacked insurance with which to treat these conditions and been conscious at the time, I doubtless would have resisted going to the hospital, a financial anxiety that would have produced life-threatening consequences.
Between the conclusion of my position at Washington University in St. Louis on June 30 and the commencement of my position at Yale University on August 1, I lacked health insurance. Having been in and out of the hospital, I was reluctant to run the risk of being vulnerable in this regard. I was lucky to have the credit limit to permit my enrollment in the (exceedingly expensive) COBRA insurance to extend my coverage. Under most circumstances in my life, such an investment would not have been financially feasible, and for many Americans, this would not be feasible (consider, for example, that my monthly contribution toward my health premium had been about $90, while the COBRA premium was about $700).
Ultimately, I was very lucky to have made this investment, because on July 9th (not an optimal month for a hospitalization…), I became sick yet again, went to the emergency room, and consistent with my dread upon entering those doors, I was admitted for three days, until my electrolytes and EKG became less severely abnormal. For all of the treatment — from the emergency room, to the intravenous medications to the EKGs to the board in a semi-private room — with my insurance I faced (admittedly in addition to the excessive COBRA premium) a total hospital copay of $300. Had I lacked that coverage, the total amount of the hospitalization was $18,700 (though admittedly were I absent insurance, I would not have been wiling to go to the emergency room in the first place, but that could have carried potentially more egregious health complications such as greater cardiac effects of the hypokalemia and hypocalcemia, potentially yielding even greater medical costs down the line). And had I been unable to afford COBRA and had less guarantee about future health insurance, thus instead seeking to apply for individual health insurance, absent the ACA guards against denials for preexisting conditions (of which I have many), I would have been unable to secure coverage. And even with the coverage that I have had over the years, I still have thousands in medical debt, which remains a consistent stressor.
From thyroid to gastrointestinal to hematological problems (not to mention a predisposition to depression that was activated by a traumatic event), I live every day knowing that absent employment with healthcare benefits (and in a region of the country with access to good care), I am at risk. I live knowing this because your plan would eliminate safeguards against loss of insurance coverage due to the preexisting conditions that make individuals vulnerable and thus all the more deserving of care, yet too often denied it. You may say that your plan would prevent insurers from denying coverage on these grounds, but you do not preclude insurers from charging higher rates. And until you have had to wait until your paycheck clears to purchase groceries and prescriptions, or have put off needed treatment because it would compromise your ability to pay for other necessities, you cannot make a legitimate claim to offer Americans insurance while enabling the charging of exorbitant fees for it.
Healthcare is meant to protect the vulnerable. I believe that the United States’ intertwining of medicine and business is deleterious to the well-being of its citizenry. You disagree and are entitled to do so. But as a physician who as a resident at Emory and as an attending at Grady Memorial, I know that you would have seen patients whose medical care — whether Medicare, Medicaid, or private insurance — enabled them to obtain medical services that would otherwise be foreclosed, with Medicaid and CHIP (whose reauthorization you voted against in 2007) providing health coverage to 1 in 5 Americans. I also know that you treated patients whose conditions would preclude their being covered at anything but exorbitant rates under your insurance plan, and who might well have suffered as a result. Such patients — stripped of many medical benefits and the adequate subsidies with which to obtain them — would be, if anything, disempowered.
While often called “Obamacare,” we too often ignore the full title of the legislation that you attack so virulently: the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. It is true that for too many Americans, affordability remains a goal that is yet to be achieved. While 20 million more Americans have health insurance, bringing the insured rate to a historic low, it is likewise true that millions continue to be underinsured, leaving many healthcare services out of reach. But these problems point to a need for the Act’s expansion, not its rescission. Because while we talk so often of the Affordable Care Act, we must also remember the core concept in the Act’s title: patient protection.
Decent and intelligent people differ over the proper role of government and its relationship to private markets, but I do not believe that it protects patients to strip them of the legislation that expanded coverage to 20 million more Americans. I do not believe that it protects patients to strip away requirements that marketplace and most insurance and small group plans provide mental health benefits. I do not believe it protects patients to roll back the Medicaid expansion that delivered expanded access to preventive as well as live-saving care for millions of low-income Americans. I do not believe that it protects patients to allow insurers to charge them exorbitant rates as punishment for having medical histories.
Could you look your former patients in the eye and tell them that you believe that these outcomes are the path to healthcare’s greatness?
Thank you for listening.