Letter from an Uninsured Woman

January 7, 2008 11:44 a.m.

It is easy to ignore the uninsured if you have insurance. But Donna Smith, who appeared in Michael Moore’s SICKO, makes it a lot harder to turn away. She gives an eloquent personal statement about what it means to face the world without any back up. Her essay begins:

I am the one. 47,000,000 and one. As 2008 dawned, I joined the ranks of those people in our nation who have no health insurance coverage. For the first time in my life, I have no way to seek medical care in this nation. No government program will cover me, and there is no private insurance available to me that I could afford.

In my family, I am the only one now uninsured. Children who make more have good policies and coverage, and even children who make much less qualify for some government help.

My husband is covered by Medicare and by the supplemental plan we carry for him. But I am many years away from qualifying for that program. When I picked his prescriptions up from the pharmacy yesterday, I was grateful to pay just $50 for his portion of that bill.

I have already begun weaning myself off the prescription medications I have. I do not think I can ever get away from the thyroid medication I have taken for many years, but I told the pharmacist to put back another medication last week when I learned it would cost me $30 without coverage. I stopped using the Advair inhaler for my asthma almost three weeks ago, and I will just use the rescue inhalers I have left. And no more cancer checks or preventive care of any kind now until I find a way to secure some coverage.

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I heard presidential candidate Mitt Romney say last night that a high percentage of those without health insurance can afford the coverage and just choose not to buy it. I do not believe that. I heard him talk about forcing people to take personal responsibility for their health care costs and coverage. I have done that for all of my adult life. In fact, I made sure all of my six children and my husband never went without coverage, even when some of the children’s biological parents remained absent from any effort to support their offspring.

Larry and I came together 32 years ago, each bringing two children to our marriage and each having full custody of those children. We then had two kids together. We worked and had a home and put food on the table for many years before the tsunami of health concerns swept through our lives. By then, thankfully, most of the children were raised. They were spared the front row seats in the collapse.

I remember when my dad was dying from pancreatic cancer almost 13 years ago that I cried out to him as he lay in a coma, “Daddy, please don’t leave me here alone.” My dad was brave — a World War II vet who worked hard and gave me a marvelous childhood and a deep faith in God and in the goodness of my country. The loss of his presence in my life has been painful. And the loneliness continues, perhaps deepened now by the realization that my life and the value of my life has been reduced to what an insurance company actuary says and not what I worked for and not what I have achieved.

In the living room, Larry is asleep on the couch — thank God, he rests. He has gone through so much in the past few years with his health struggles. I cannot sleep well at all now. I wake. I think about the “what ifs” and I worry. I think about 2007 when we appeared in ‘SiCKO,’ testified before a Congressional sub-committee, and rode a 1980 school bus on a grassroots tour to promote real reform that would save our fellow Americans from our fate.

At a meeting of Colorado health care reform activists yesterday, I heard good and committed folks discussing how to keep political pressure on leaders who don’t grasp the depth of the problem. I’ll admit, I felt diminished sitting there. I felt like a yoke that weighs on society and on a system gone so wrong. Others can argue from a position of strength and confidence in their positions, and I must argue from a position of weakness and personal fear.

Last night I also listened as presidential candidate John Edwards sought to infuse more passion to his position by saying he understands the plight of the working and middle class in this nation. He proudly pointed out his father in the audience and acknowledeged that his family gave him the opportunity to achieve what he has as an adutl. He said he wants special interests out of the equation in deciding our national agenda. I’m for that, but I don’t see how we can do it when so much money buys so much influence. But somebody has to start somewhere.

So, the journey Larry and I began 32 years ago together with hope and with intensely responsible and committed work will wind down with a very different outcome than we had imagined. We hoped for time to enjoy life and enjoy each other when the back-breaking and mind-numbing work of raising up six children ended. Instead, health concerns zapped that dream and re-routed our plans.

And Daddy left me here after all. But I am not alone. I may be uninsured and unprotected and devalued by the current system. But I am a fighter to the end, and I will continue my life’s work to inform every American who still doesn’t get it — presidential candidate or not — that I am not in this boat because I wanted to be or because I choose to be. I need and want a lifeboat — the boat I paid for, I changed thousands of diapers for, I cooked meals for, a rode commuter buses to work for, I went to church for, I started cold cars for, I earned my college degree for, I bought insurance for, I paid Congressional salaries for, I fought for — and that my father risked his life for.

I want what working hard for in America for all of my adult life should have afforded me: just a little peace of mind and to rest next to my husband without terror. I want to know that if I get sick I can go to the doctor. I want a mammogram (now overdue by months). I want the asthma medication that makes me breathe easier. And I do not want the high and mighty judgements of those who never wanted for any of those things.

But most of all I want my now struggling, sometimes cranky love of my life to never, ever think it was his failing that we ended up at this place. I want him to sleep so that when I rise up fighting again in the morning, he has the strength to stand by my side until this battle is won.

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