My Life As A Second-Class Citizen

America's Failed Health Care System

When an injustice burns in your chest and you feel compelled to work passionately for change, the root of that injustice is often very personal. Such is the case for me when it comes to fixing the health care crisis facing America's uninsured, whose ranks just grew by 2.4 million people to 43.6 million Americans.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, my wife and I and our two young children lived for eight years without any health insurance. We were low-income, self-employed and our options for obtaining insurance were limited. We applied with the Iowa Farm Bureau, one of the few options available, and were turned down. So, we had little choice but to try to stay healthy, avoid trips to the doctor even when it might be advisable, and avail ourselves of the hodge-podge of limited low-cost medical services when absolutely necessary.

Back in those days, I had a nagging back problem that proved to be very debilitating for many years. I wasn't able to lift, sit or walk normally for most of a decade. Cortisone injections were prescribed -- with a price tag of $750 for one shot! We eventually saved up $750, which at that time was three weeks of our combined wages. The injection itself was a failure, and in fact ended up irritating my back problem. Out $750 and with no prospects for medical coverage, I opted to forego any of the other suggested medical procedures, and simply learned to live with the problem until, after 10 years, it gradually began to improve with the help of physiotherapy and exercise.

The second "memorable" personal experience with our failed health care system involved our daughter, Fionna, then age 2. One Sunday in January, she broke her leg sledding and we rushed her to the county hospital. Incredibly, there was no doctor on duty that day who could fix a broken leg! We live only four blocks from the private (read "for-profit") hospital, and we had hoped that they would accept us. But because we lacked insurance, daughter and mom were shipped by ambulance 120 miles to University Hospitals in Iowa City. This resulted in additional charges, loss of an entire week of work for my wife, loss of half a week's work for me, and about 1,000 miles of driving in an old car where a four-block walk should have sufficed.

Let it be noted that the care we received at University Hospitals was excellent. Fionna, now 15, is one of the top runners on her school's cross country team. But the tab for her care came to over $5,000. Our family's income was under $15,000 that year, so there was obviously no way we could afford to pay the bill in its entirety, at least not immediately. We approached the local human services office about possible assistance, only to be informed that we weren't poor enough to qualify for Title XIX!

Two years and countless phone calls, meetings and letters later, a payment plan was worked out and we received some assistance with the bill. Dealing with the demeaning bureaucracies of the Department of Human Services, University Hospitals and the county hospital proved to be one of the most frustrating and humiliating experiences of my life. I felt like a second-class citizen. In fact, I WAS a second-class citizen.

The working poor, the middle class, children and the elderly are falling through the cracks of our failed health care system in droves. These cracks are more accurately described as chasms, and they grow wider every year. There is no reason why the wealthiest nation in the world -- a nation that spends more per capita on health care than any other -- should be the only industrialized democracy without a health care program for all its citizens.

These personal experiences as an uninsured person confirmed in me the need for health care reform. As a lawmaker, meetings with the families of countless Iowans who suffer and die due to lack of coverage -- whose traumas make my own family's past situation look almost pleasant -- harden my resolve to do everything I can to fix this broken health care system.

While America needs reform at the federal level, we ought not to wait. Too many hopes, futures and lives hang in the balance. States like Maine, Vermont and Oregon are leading the charge at the local level. Other states can and should do the same.

The goal should be adequate, affordable health care for ALL. There are many paths to that goal. The bottom line is elected officials in Washington, D.C. and state legislatures across the country should not rest until this goal is met.

Indeed, if a majority of state and federal lawmakers had to walk a mile in the shoes of the uninsured, America would have a comprehensive, functional health-care system in no time at all.

Ed Fallon is a state representative from Des Moines and the executive director of 1000 Friends of Iowa. He is also exploring a run for governor in 2006, and can be reached at (515-243-8828 or email ed@fallonforgovernor.org.

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