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.

Monday, September 7, 2009

My Most Public Contribution to the Health Care Debate

Yes, this country has to have health care for all. The public option is already a compromise. I have said this or similar things to everyone who can tolerate my blather for months, maybe years.

When I met the organizers and activists who came to Maine to help us persuade our Senators of the wisdom of health care for all we started to work the phones, Interwebs, newspapers, parties and sidewalks. One day, Alex the poet, and SEIU organizer who runs a mean meeting, asked me if I would tell my tale of health care woe and intrigue on camera for his "bosses." Never a wallflower, I said, sure.

One evening a few weeks later the phone started to ring, Director Will Robinson called, Producer Edna Snowe-Jensen set up an interview and the next morning a gigantic truck full of film equipment was in my yard.

It turned out to be one of the hottest days of the summer. We had to close the house to keep the sound consistent. Despite the stifling humidity and heat, everyone was cheerful, encouraging and positive. Hardly anyone in the house had health insurance. Of the 11 people there that day, only the director, producer and I had decent coverage. Everyone else had out-of-reach deductibles or no insurance at all. If this ad works at all it is because everyone there was committed to the cause.

Remember, the public option IS the compromise. We cannot let hundreds of corporate lobbyists write health care legislation. Our lawmakers must do their jobs and represent our interests.

And the next person who complains to you about the cost of health care reform, ask him or her to outline the costs of doing nothing.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

A New Version of the Matinicus Drama

Finally a reporter managed to get most of the story on recent Matinicus violence straight. The only thing missing is the manipulation of the supposed lobster territory birthright according to gender or just what the heck ever.
p.s. Thanks to Will Fraser of Wicked Good Films for the news story tip.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Secretary Sebelius Says Unequivocal Yes to Public Option

Though she said this at the Portland meeting, as opposed to the Bangor round table where I was a panel member, MPBN has the story. The elegant and articulate former Kansas governor shores up the public option in the first moments of the MPBN piece.

Here's more or less what I said to the Secretary and the 60 or so people gathered at Orono this afternoon:

Thank you Madame Secretary coming to Maine. Thanks to all the organizers who made this meeting possible. I am honored to have this opportunity.

First, I have to say that I am one of the lucky ones. I am healthy. I hope to be completing my sixth triathlon next Sunday morning. Two hundred or so of us lucky, healthy Mainers will swim a half-mile, cycle 26 miles and run 6.6 miles for the fun of doing it, because we can. Millions are not so lucky and way too many have lost, not only their health, but homes, businesses and ways of life because of our country's health care chaos--I cannot bring myself to call it a system.

I am lucky to have had in my mid-20s a type of cancer, cervical cancer, with a high cure rate, one of the highest. I am lucky to have lived nearly 25 years without a recurrence. Because I, like every cancer survivor, worry about recurrence, the fact that I could never, ever have a break in my health insurance coverage became an intrinsic part of my life. Access to health insurance determined what work I did, where I lived, my marriageability, and was put at risk by my divorce. Nevertheless, I am lucky to have had an education that, all told, enabled me to string together a life that included health insurance. As a teacher I know many are not so fortunate.

When I left British Airways, my job right out of college, and came home to Maine during my cancer mini-drama, I used COBRA. Even in the 1980s it cost thousands of dollars a year, but there was no way I could cancel it. I found work as a social editor, then reporter, for Rockland's newspaper and the jobs included insurance. Finally, I put my degree to work and taught English and dance for 12 years in a Lincoln County high school. I married, had a child in my 40s and left my teaching job, secure that my husband would support us. When I found I had no choice but to leave the marriage, my position as the single employee in my husband's lobstering venture evaporated.

Since 2003 I have patched coverage together through work and catastrophic policies with out-of-reach deductibles. It has not been pretty. More than once, by the time I got billed for a visit, test or procedure, the policy that originally was in force had been replaced by another. When I called the insurance companies, you would have though I had asked for ancient Sumerian tablets as I asked to reconstruct previous policies. Many times I have simply paid the bill rather than wrangle with the insurance companies or damage my credit rating further.

Now, because of the economy and my expensive teaching experience, I work as a long term substitute outside of contract for a school that has agreed
to pay my health insurance costs. I'm both lucky and grateful. Tens of thousands of others have not had my good fortune.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A Bit o' Or Not

Can't resist posting this picture. Though you cannot tell, it was taken at the Windsor Fair this past Sunday.

How lucky am I to have a sweetheart who embodies cool, warmth and heat, all with a giant brain?