A Healthy Debate

There’s a new awareness of the need and the urgency of the need to make the benefits of good healthcare more broadly available, especially to the 1.7 million Georgians who have no health insurance.

A recent family illness has taught me, among other things, to cut to the chase when the insurance statements come in the mail. I go directly to the space marked, “est. member responsibility.” If that line is filled with zeroes – $0.00, then I can exhale.

And so far, thanks to good health insurance coverage provided by a good employer, that particular space has registered mostly zeroes, with only the occasional $15 or $30 co-payment designated to come out of our pockets.

Every reading of every statement is a lesson in counting blessings. Some of those communications have dealt with chemotherapy treatments billed at more than $4,000 apiece. What would it be like to have to ask the oncologist, “Does he really need another one?” Or to figure out what else you could sell or borrow? Or to see if there was a credit card you hadn’t yet maxed out?

Seeing a spouse through cancer treatment – even when it is successful, as it was in our case – is one of those life experiences you are only dimly conscious of until you are compelled by circumstances to pay attention.

Suddenly you are aware of whole networks and communities that have existed right under your nose without attracting your notice. You meet people who spend their days treating and often curing cancer; others who are treated and cured. They welcome you to the fold.

The first time I accompanied my husband to a chemotherapy session I was terrified. I worried that I’d be surrounded by a lot of sad, desperate people in pain and my discomfort would somehow make things worse for them – and especially for my husband.

But when we walked into a bright clean room full of recliners and IV stands and pleasant, upbeat people – very few of whom actually “looked” as though they had cancer, it didn’t seem so scary. It was just a group of people who had something to do and were there to get it done.

I was less skittish about the radiation treatments, since I could only go as far as the waiting area. But the same sort of good-natured resolve was evident as people checked in and went back to the treatment area.

Membership in this particular community was not something I sought, but it was eye-opening and oddly reassuring.

Of course, a big part of that reassurance was the sense that everything that needed to be done for my husband was being done, that he was receiving the best possible care – and, frankly, that we weren’t likely to have to go deeply into debt to pay for that care.

Along with that comes the sobering realization that not everybody facing a grave illness has that comfort. In fact, some 1.7 million Georgians are without health insurance. I do not believe they should have to face debilitating illness on their own.

It may be my own heightened consciousness, but it seems there is new awareness of the need and the urgency of the need to make the benefits of good healthcare more broadly available. Presidential candidates in both parties are talking about healthcare, and many of them have unveiled sweeping proposals.

Just days apart, this past summer, Georgia’s two top elected officials each announced new health initiatives. Gov. Sonny Perdue introduced a plan to help small businesses provide health insurance to their employees.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle announced two healthcare programs. One is a system of Safety Net Clinics to provide a range of affordable basic services, aimed at diverting minor illnesses from the more expensive emergency room settings. The other is the Georgia Health Marketplace, envisioned as a clearinghouse for health insurance products and information.

No doubt, these plans will be thoroughly discussed and debated in the weeks leading up to the 2008 legislative session. There will certainly be some grumbling, some opposition. (One lawmaker has already criticized the governor’s plan as an entitlement; one commentator managed to inject the specter of “HillaryCare” even while more or less endorsing Cagle’s plan.) That’s OK. The important thing is that health concerns are attracting the attention of people who are in a position to do something about them.

So let the discussions begin. Let the debating begin. Let the proposals be studied, examined, critiqued, refined, tweaked. And, at the end of the day, let something positive emerge that will make healthcare available and affordable to many more Georgians. It’s time.

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