The Affordable Care Act, colloquially (and sometimes derisively) known as Obama Care, is about so much more than fairness and equality. The day our Supreme Court reached a verdict of constitutionality, millions of lives changed. I wrote the following message on a social networking site the day after the historic news was announced:
Having lived the last five years making all my career and housing decisions based on where I could find affordable health care for my family, having two members of my family be deemed uninsurable by private insurance (I tried to pay for it and enroll them) when the premiums through my job ($2,200 a month plus around $550 in out-of-pocket costs for treatments that weren’t covered!) were too hard to pay, teetering close to bankruptcy because of the health bills for Ana’s first year of life, I say this is about so much more than fairness. How many people like my husband are now considering entrepreneurship and self-employment? How many people can finally choose their own path because their health is not tied to an employer’s wishes? Think about the hundreds of thousands of new inventions and ideas that we will come to fruition now that people have the freedom to tie themselves to an idea, not employer-sponsored health insurance. Now when Dave and I talk about our future and our plans, we can say “in 2014” and know it means something. Our freedom has a commencement date thanks to yesterday’s decision.
The story arc of my life follows Americana Suburbanite in the beginning. I had an awesome childhood, graduated from high school on time, went to a prestigious college, graduated Magna Cum Laude in four years, got a job right out of school, met, fell in love with, and married my husband at the age of 23, and became pregnant with my first child at age 24. My husband and I both had good jobs, a stable income, and money stashed away for a rainy day. We were ready for parenthood. At seven weeks pregnant, I had my first pregnancy complication, and the remainder of our pregnancy was constantly perilous. We were prepared for parenthood, but not prepared for a child with major medical issues. When our daughter was born, we had to fight tooth and nail to get her the services she needed to survive. We were struggling, but not hopeless. But when she was seven weeks old, my husband was diagnosed with a treatable but not curable illness.
Our family’s position fell from one of upward mobility and safety to hazardously close to losing it all within months. My husband had to quit his job to become a full-time caregiver for our daughter. With one income and less than great insurance, we spent the next year actively working to keep our daughter alive, maintain my husband’s health, stay housed, and feed ourselves, too. Even with insurance, our health care bills for both my husband and our child ate through our entire savings and culminated in over $50,000 of debt. Adding to this our existing student loan debt, the high-interest credit cards we used to pay off hospital bills, and the unexpectedly lower household income, and we were sunk into an inescapable pit of debt.
We were lucky when at just over one year old, our daughter made a miraculous recovery. By age two she was fully physically healthy, and now, at age five, she has very few effects remaining from her illnesses. However, the financial catastrophe will affect us for the rest of our lives. Because of their diagnoses, no private insurance company will offer coverage to my husband and daughter. I must work for companies that offer insurance. At one point, we paid $2,200 per month in premiums, our remaining income far below the recognized poverty rate in this country. Unfortunately, huge health care costs are not factored into benefits eligibility, and we continued to struggle to survive on my salary. Once the economy collapsed, my husband no longer had the option of returning to work, as there was no work to be had in our area.
The power of our story isn’t the health scares or the unfairness of preferential selection for insurance. The power lies in the opportunities left unrealized because of our situation. My husband and I both have great drive, strong educations, and interesting entrepreneurial ideas. We have turned away from amazing opportunities of great potential because, without employee-sponsored health insurance, our family would not survive. My daughter, though completely healthy now, would not have been eligible for private insurance until she was 13. Thirteen years of ingenuity, of great ideas and inventions, were stifled because working for yourself is not an option when your child needs insurance.
I therefore contend that entire generations of individuals with great passion and drive were held back from pursuing inventions or ideas that could have bettered our country. It is financially irresponsible to leave our health care in the hands of employers. It limits growth and personal freedoms. Parents are not free to create a small business, to employ themselves, or take a year to develop a new invention, because their children need coverage and care. Spouses who want to protect their loved one, to ensure they have access to cancer treatments, diabetes care, or other medications cannot choose to build the next Fortune 500 company and also keep their family member insured.
More companies will jump into existence, more people will be inventive, and the world will see more potential actualized when the health of our citizens is not tied to employer decision-making. If we withhold opportunity from people who are not able to pay out of pocket for health care costs, if our policies hold back the caregivers from trying to improve their lot or change the world through invention, we are using healthcare as a tool to segregate and discriminate in our communities.