Saturday, September 12, 2009

Put Maine Ahead of the Insurance Lobby

In an ad crafted for the Health Care for America Now campaign, a woman asks Senator Snow to maintain her independence and put Maine ahead of the insurance lobby.

I am that woman. Here in Maine, commercials with me and my son Eli pepper the local news shows early in the morning and evening. In them I ask for health care reform that includes a public option, preventing insurance companies from rejecting people because of pre-existing conditions and ensuring health care for all. In the end I plaintively ask that Senator Snowe put Maine people ahead of the insurance lobby.

The experience of having this portion of my life plastered all over the local television channels has been odd. My high school students burst through the classroom door yelling, "I saw you on t.v. this morning Ms. Roberts." When I go to my favorite blogs for the latest on what Keith Olbermann recently called the "festival of blind racial rage dressed up as a health care debate," I see my not-so-smiling face dividing the comments from the posts. It has been no burden at all, even fun to be at a wedding last weekend and have someone whom I did not know ask me if I was, "...that woman on t.v."

Despite excellent overall health, my path to this 15 minutes of fame winds through 25 years of health care anxiety. In my mid-20s I contracted cervical cancer. One of the most treatable cancers, cervical cancers grow as a result of a wart or papilloma virus carried unwittingly by men. Today a vaccine protects women against four known cancer causing strains of virua. When NYC's Dr. Gaetano Bello (he also delivered Jon Stewart and his wife Tracy's children, but that is another story) removed a section of my cervix with a laser in 1987, he was one of a handful of doctors in the world treating cervical cancer as a systemic, sexually transmitted disease. He even treated my vector, the man who gave me the virus. Few American doctors do this even today.

Thanks to an inherently cooperative body and good care, I recovered completely in a few months. By this time I had left my job at British Airways in New York and moved home to Maine. Because the small town travel agent job I secured in Maine had no health insurance, I kept the Aetna policy from BA using COBRA. Even in 1988, before the triple digit increases in premiums, COBRA cost several hundred dollars a month. The only reason I could afford it was that my parents had split up and I lived in and maintained our mortgage-free family home. Little did I know I would later become the poster girl for health insurance insecurity.

At the time in Maine, my pre-existing condition only received coverage if no lapse in coverage ever occurred so I had to keep COBRA or find a job with coverage. (Reform since provides a 30-day window before pre-existing conditions can be precluded from coverage. Those health insurance companies are all heart.) Because I had a broad education and could write, Steve Heddericg, editor of the now defunct thrice-weekly Rockland Courier-Gazette, hired me as social editor, an entry-level job that eventually led to a reporter's position.

A few years later, after I had left the Courier thinking to marry and move to Virginia--a plan that fizzled in the implementation--first COBRA, then catastrophic high-deductible insurance, reared their expensive heads as I moved to high school English teaching. Since my degree was in Dance and Dance Education, I had to finish a few English certification classes while monitoring the study-hall at Lincoln Academy in Newcastle, Maine. As I had hoped, this job led to a contracted position where I taught English and dance for 11 years.

For several of those years I helped negotiate the yearly contracts with our trustees, so I saw firsthand the changes in our health insurance. Back in the good ol' 90s, there were more than two health insurance companies in Maine, so policies only increased by 12 or 13 percent a year--while our non-union salaries rose in fractional increments or stagnated. Lately, with Anthem Blue-Cross Blue-Shield's de facto statewide monopoly, I shudder to think of premium increases.

Eventually, I left my spinster teacher life behind and married a lobsterman. With the benefit of hindsight I sometimes wonder whether my health insurance policy held as much interest for this hardworking fisherman with back problems as my long legs and big smile. Longish story short, we had a child and I took a leave from my job, curtailing our health insurance policy, so my husband had to come up with the $9,600 per year to cover us. I worked as his bookkeeper to keep his small business policy honest. We allowed financial pressure and other more fundamental issues, including my husband's violence, to irreparably erode our marriage. After a year or so, I went back to work part-time and started grad school and we began divorce proceedings.

Seemingly working from the textbook of horrible divorce behavior, my husband, without notifying me, called Anthem and canceled me, telling them I no longer worked for him. For 23 days, I had no health insurance. Only when his attorney, during a pre-trial hearing, insisted that my husband had kept my policy current, in a "methinks [he] doth protest too much," way, did I call Anthem to double-check and discover that I had less than a week to get coverage or lose my pre-existing condition coverage.

This was a wake up call. I was a healthy woman, but my fear of losing coverage for cancer is great. This week I learned that my brush with domestic violence is called a pre-existing condition in eight states and D.C.

The only argument against a truly functional public option is cost. Trouble is, the cost of not having one is already fracturing this country economically and morally and that cost is rising daily.

If you have not called Senator Snowe's office, please do. The number is 888-743-4401. Tell her to stand up to the insurance lobby and secure health care for all.

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