I want to apologize to President Obama. But first, some background.
I found out three weeks ago I have cancer. I’m 49 years old, have been married for almost 20 years and have two kids. My husband has his own small computer business, and I run a small nonprofit in the San Fernando Valley. I am also an artist. Money is tight, and we don’t spend it frivolously. We’re just ordinary, middle-class people, making an honest living, raising great kids and participating in our community, the kids’ schools and church.
We’re good people, and we work hard. But we haven’t been able to afford health insurance for more than two years. And now I have third-stage breast cancer and am facing months of expensive treatment.
To understand how such a thing could happen to a family like ours, I need to take you back nine years to when my husband got laid off from the entertainment company where he’d worked for 10 years. Until then, we had been insured through his work, with a first-rate plan. After he got laid off, we got to keep that health insurance for 18 months through COBRA, by paying $1,300 a month, which was a huge burden on an unemployed father and his family.
By the time the COBRA ran out, my husband had decided to go into business for himself, so we had to purchase our own insurance. That was fine for a while. Every year his business grew. But insurance premiums were steadily rising too. More than once, we switched carriers for a lower rate, only to have them raise rates significantly after a few months.
With the recession, both of our businesses took a huge hit — my husband’s income was cut in half, and the foundations that had supported my small nonprofit were going through their own tough times. We had to start using a home equity line of credit to pay for our health insurance premiums (which by that point cost as much as our monthly mortgage). When the bank capped our home equity line, we were forced to cash in my husband’s IRA. The time finally came when we had to make a choice between paying our mortgage or paying for health insurance. We chose to keep our house. We made a nerve-racking gamble, and we lost.
Not having insurance amplifies cancer stress. After the diagnosis, instead of focusing all of my energy on getting well, I was panicked about how we were going to pay for everything. I felt guilty and embarrassed about not being insured. When I went to the diagnostic center to pick up my first reports, I was sent to the financial department, where a woman sat me down to talk about resources for “cash patients” (a polite way of saying “uninsured”).
“I’m not a deadbeat,” I blurted out. “I’m a good person. I have two kids and a house!” The clerk was sympathetic, telling me how even though she worked in the healthcare field, she could barely afford insurance herself.
Although there have been a few people who judged us harshly, most people have been understanding about how this could happen to us. That’s given me the courage to “out” myself and my family in hopes that it will educate people who are still lucky enough to have health insurance and view people like my family as irresponsible. We’re not. What I want people to understand is that, if this could happen to us, it could happen to anybody.
If you are fortunate enough to still be employed and have insurance through your employers, you may feel insulated from the sufferings of people like me right now. But things can change abruptly. If you still have a good job with insurance, that doesn’t mean that you’re better than me, more deserving than me or smarter than me. It just means that you are luckier. And access to healthcare shouldn’t depend on luck.
Fortunately for me, I’ve been saved by the federal government’s Pre-existing Condition Insurance Plan, something I had never heard of before needing it. It’s part of President Obama’s healthcare plan, one of the things that has already kicked in, and it guarantees access to insurance for U.S. citizens with preexisting conditions who have been uninsured for at least six months. The application was short, the premiums are affordable, and I have found the people who work in the administration office to be quite compassionate (nothing like the people I have dealt with over the years at other insurance companies.) It’s not perfect, of course, and it still leaves many people in need out in the cold. But it’s a start, and for me it’s been a lifesaver — perhaps literally.
Which brings me to my apology. I was pretty mad at Obama before I learned about this new insurance plan. I had changed my registration from Democrat to Independent, and I had blacked out the top of the “h” on my Obama bumper sticker, so that it read, “Got nope” instead of “got hope.” I felt like he had let down the struggling middle class. My son and I had campaigned for him, but since he took office, we felt he had let us down.
So this is my public apology. I’m sorry I didn’t do enough of my own research to find out what promises the president has made good on. I’m sorry I didn’t realize that he really has stood up for me and my family, and for so many others like us. I’m getting a new bumper sticker to cover the one that says “Got nope.” It will say “ObamaCares.”
Spike Dolomite Ward is the founder and executive director of Arts in Education Aid Council, a nonprofit organization that is restoring the arts to public schools in the San Fernando Valley. This piece originally appeared in the L.A. Times.