Friday, July 24, 2009

Health Care Reform: What does it mean for me, my neighbor, and Ronnie? (written by Abby Lowe)

In retrospect, this was a perfect week to come to D.C. We talked to legislators, regulators and policy experts who are smack dab in the middle of negotiations on health care reform as we traveled around telling the CHRISTUS story. We pumped the journalists we talked to for information, and we exchanged ideas with national thought leaders. We inserted ourselves into the thick of things, provided our own expertise and learned a lot in the process.

We’ve learned that so far, there are few particulars on exactly what health care reform in the U.S. will look like. Lots of people have ideas about how things should go (some good, some not so much), and it can be difficult to pin down an exact position on anything. But we do understand that everyone—insured and uninsured, rich and poor, young and old, providers and patients--will have to give something up to make sure we come out on the other side with an equitable system that works for everyone.

One of the things I heard Dr. Royer say quite a bit this week was that reform needed to be patient-focused. “What’s best for the communities and the people we treat?” he’d ask.

And that got me to thinking of Ronnie.

Our Health Care System is Broken

I met Ronnie during a year I spent in inner-city Oakland, California. From the fall of 2004 to the fall of 2005, I lived in a tiny apartment with four other young women and spent half of my week volunteering in an elementary school and the other half providing foot care for homeless men in a clinic downtown.

Most people don’t realize that many folks who are homeless deal with extensive foot pain because they walk around all day and can’t take their shoes off at night (because they’ll get stolen) or when they get soaked in the rain (because they rarely have a pair to spare). So we trimmed their toenails, shaved their calluses, listened to their stories and sent them off with a clean pair of socks.

But one slow Tuesday, a guy in a wheelchair showed up at our clinic door with a bandage around the left side of his face and over his left eye. He was emaciated, weak and covered in dirt.

His name was Ronnie, he told us. A failed suicide attempt had left him paralyzed from the waist down, and skin cancer had eaten away at his face.

He took the bandage off to show one of the clinic nurses his wound, and I was shocked.

I don’t know if the wound actually was the result of skin cancer, but I know that it was so deep that I could see his cheekbone, and it had a horrible, rotting smell. (I did foot care two days a week for homeless guys, and yet I had never seen or smelled anything like it.)

Ronnie explained that he had slept in a park the night before, and had woken up to realize that there were ants crawling in and out of the huge gaping hole in his face. He just wanted some help, to be sure it was properly cleaned before he went on his way.

So the nurse, God bless her, cleaned his wound, gave him some more gauze and bandages and slipped him a sandwich or two before he left.

As he wheeled himself away, I felt somewhat defeated. Ronnie obviously needed much more care, a clean place to sleep and behavioral help than we could not provide.

Ronnie needed a health care system that worked for him. And while we had done what we could, we had ultimately let him down. He could not get or afford the long-term care he needed, and the care we provided him at our tiny clinic would never be enough.

I will never forget the first time I saw Ronnie’s scrawny frame dwarfed by his wheelchair, feeling my heart break at hearing his story. And I will certainly never forget the stench of his rotting flesh. I want health care reform for Ronnie.

And I want health care for a man we met yesterday, whose wife was diagnosed with breast cancer a little over two months into her second pregnancy. They had insurance, but couldn’t get clear advice on what to do, what was best for this woman and her baby. They visited many specialists and got many different answers. The male doctors said one thing, the female doctors said another. The oncologists said one thing, but the surgeons said another. Finally, they found a reconstructive plastic surgeon who helped them navigate their options and her care. Today, their child is a healthy four-year-old, and this man’s wife is still in remission. But the system did not work for them—in all its convoluted brokenness, it caused them pain, confusion and fear instead of assisting them in their time of need.

They deserve better.

The Truth Hurts

But I have to be honest. I’m a normal, everyday kind of person. And although I consider myself compassionate and informed and I care about what health care reform means for Ronnie, I also care about what it means for me, that insured gal who (thankfully) has mostly used her insurance coverage for preventive care, to treat small colds/sinus infections and to offset the cost of prescription medications.

I also want health care reform for me.

The New York Times reports that:
”Our health care system is engineered, deliberately or not, to resist change. The people who pay for it — you and I — often don’t realize that they’re paying for it. Money comes out of our paychecks, in withheld taxes and insurance premiums, before we ever see it. It then flows to doctors, hospitals and drug makers without our realizing that it was our money to begin with. . .”

”The United States now devotes one-sixth of its economy to medicine. Divvy that up, and health care will cost the typical household roughly $15,000 this year, including the often-invisible contributions by employers.”

Health care reform is important for all of us, and we’re in it together.

It was in our inner-city neighborhood in Oakland, walking past discarded drug paraphernalia that lined the streets, where loud music filled the air and our poverty-stricken neighbors reach out to us, fed us, protected us and invited us over to watch cable TV that I learned that everyone--no matter what kind of job they do, the level of education they’ve achieved or how much money they earn--is basically the same. We all deserve to chase the American dream as healthy, whole individuals.

Ronnie deserves it, wherever he is. And so do you.

Now’s the time. Dr. Royer started the CHRISTUS system on this journey this week in D.C. Will you join us? ~Abby

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