November 9, 2007

Commentary:

A Matter of Life or Death: Health Care Reform in California

By Heather Lacayo

When Laurelyn found a lump under her arm, she didn’t go immediately to the doctor. She didn’t have health insurance and hoped it might just go away. She was 29 years old, very healthy, and almost never got sick.

Laurelyn worked with trees, climbing them to cut out disease. She was as strong as the men she climbed with and could do more push ups and pull ups than almost anyone she knew. The work helped to keep her strong, but was inconsistent, so she subbed for the US Postal Service delivering mail occasionally. She paid her bills on time and owned a truck she’d worked hard to pay for. She rented a very small apartment in the Santa Cruz Mountains and had fun with her friends and her co-workers at the local pub.

A short time passed and the lump did not get smaller, so Laurelyn decided that she’d better get a health professional’s advice. When she went in to the doctor’s office, she explained that she didn’t have health insurance. She was told that the lump might just go away and that she should wait a while longer.

Laurelyn waited, but when the lump didn’t go away, she made an appointment for a biopsy. She paid cash. The biopsy results showed the lump to be metasticized melanoma skin cancer.

Pause. This is where we have to pause. Cancer (aggressive, untreated) + uninsured + two part-time jobs = a fair chance?

Laurelyn began the arduous task of searching out a way to cover treatments. She sought the help of her closest family, her mother and sister, in helping her navigate the seemingly endless task of coordinating appointments with payments.

Laurelyn’s mother had almost lost her home when she had gone through breast cancer treatments many years earlier and the family clearly understood the need for help with the tremendous bills looming ahead.

Laurelyn and her family made countless phone calls and filled out piles of paperwork. They contacted city, county, and state agencies and they searched for doctors who would accept the payment programs they had found to help her get treatments.

They researched melanoma and found the only treatment that might make a difference at this stage was a form of immunotherapy called interfuron. There were tests and scans needed to chart progress but when Laurelyn began interfuron treatments the doctor told her she didn’t need some of the scans. Laurelyn knew the programs might not cover all of the tests and scans so she didn’t push for more information.

Time passed, and Laurelyn felt worse, not better, which she attributed to the treatments. She could no longer do pull ups or push ups and had trouble climbing a few steps. When a pain in her leg sent her to the emergency room, she found that the melanoma had spread into her bones. The nurse asked her for her original scans and was shocked to discover she had never had original scans done.

Laurelyn and her family turned to clinical trials and drove to Los Angeles to meet with a clinical trial specialist. He waived his $300 fee after meeting with them to refer them to a melanoma specialist involved in a cutting-edge trial. The melanoma specialist asked what type of insurance Laurelyn had and when he found out she had none he refused to see her at all.

On Tuesday, May 18, 2004, Laurelyn died.

When Michael Moore sent out email requests for healthcare horror stories to retell in his incredibly important movie “Sicko,” I sent in the story of Laurelyn. I have been asked to speak at a number of health care events as a result of my response. Most recently, I spoke at a healthcare vigil in front of Governor Schwarzenegger’s office in Los Angeles and was invited to meet with the State Deputy Director following the vigil.

Healthcare Now organized the event and asked me to help present the Governor’s office with a large check, titled “Reality Check” and signed by hundreds of individuals. There were stacks of large posters with snapshots of hundreds of people who had participated and who had written personal messages to the Governor that we displayed throughout the room. We discussed the need for the Governor to be the “hero” he has played in the movies and to take care of the people of California, not the companies that fund the insurance industry. We supported our points from fiscal, moral, religious, and humane standpoints with facts, figures, and narratives like the true story above.

According to the U.S. Census bureau, 47 million Americans—or close to 16 % of the U.S. population—had no health insurance coverage in 2006. This number had increased by more than 2 million Americans from the previous year. And while the number of uninsured increased, the number of people covered by government health programs decreased from 2005 to 2006.

Laurelyn was my little sister, and I miss her.

Heather Lacayo is the Secretary of the California Democratic Council (CDC). She has a degree in Journalism from California State University, Fullerton and has served as Broadcast Journalism Chair for the Society of Professional Journalists.

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