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Thursday, November 15, 2012

Voting Can Be Good for Your Health

Obama's re-election means insurance companies won't be able refuse to cover the treatment I will need for the rest of my life.

Bart Heird/Flickr
By Hillary Gibson

I always had a sensitive stomach growing up. Until I got to college, I never imagined it would cost me tens of thousands of dollars per year.

My first semester at the University of California, Berkeley should have revolved around making new friends and experiencing the perks of independence. Instead, thanks to what doctors eventually realized was Crohn's disease, my stomach constantly felt like a rag being wrung dry, and my digestive tract couldn't break down much of anything. My first semester quickly turned into a crash course in navigating our dysfunctional health care system while battling chronic pain in a dorm room.

Though I appeared fine on the outside, my immune system was attacking my insides, making it impossible for a deep fissure that had developed to heal. Soon, the combination of piercing cuts and twisting pains made it hard for me to even walk to class.

Luckily, I had opted for the student health insurance plan. That made it easy to see a doctor — but only if I went to one specific clinic with unspecific doctors.

For months I bounced around from doctor to doctor — paying the copayment for each visit within the university system, and having to pay upfront for visits outside the system and submit claims retroactively. My complaints were dismissed as assorted minor ailments and treated with painkillers and useless creams. Endless paperwork, doctor referral requirements, and insurance approval delayed my visit to an outside specialist for over a month. A steady dose of Vicodin made me fail a midterm.

At 18, with no knowledge of health insurance procedures, the stress weighed heavily on me medically and financially, as well as academically.

I endured an unsuccessful surgery, inconclusive blood work, and an entirely useless CT scan with a $5,000 price tag that still haunts me today.

Finally, a colonoscopy determined that I had Crohn's disease, a chronic inflammatory gastrointestinal disorder. At that point, a gastroenterologist decided to respond with the “big guns,” as she termed Remicade, the intravenous medication I've been on ever since.

It worked with miraculous speed. By the middle of my second semester, I was able to focus on my studies without the constant pain and anxiety of my mystery condition.

But my miracle cure has two huge drawbacks. I must get this treatment once every two months, possibly for the rest of my life. And it costs about $5,000 per dose. That’s $30,000 a year — just $10,000 under the median family income.

For a college student just months away from entering the workforce, that's a grim prospect. But, thanks to President Barack Obama's re-election, there's hope for people like me with what insurance companies like to call pre-existing conditions. With a deeply personal stake in the outcome of this election, I felt profound sense of relief when Obama won.

Mitt Romney made a big show of his opposition to a "government takeover" of health care despite the fact that the Affordable Care Act looks a lot like Romneycare expanded to the national level. But he failed to make "Obamacare" a dirty word: The few voters who said the Affordable Care Act was the top issue driving their decision at the polls were evenly divided between Obama and Romney, the Kaiser Foundation determined. Overall, a record low number of voters now want it scrapped.

Obama's breakthrough health care reform law will make it easier for me when I graduate next year and need a new health plan. Under this law, I won't be denied insurance. Plus, young people like me may now stay on their parents' health care plan until age 26. And insurance companies can't cap coverage benefits or drop subscribers altogether. These benefits — and the alternative prospect of 34 millionnewly insured Americans losing their promised coverage — are why I'm proud to say I voted for Obama.

The Democratic Party should see its election wins as a mandate to keep increasing access to affordable health care. While the 2010 law can't make those bills still lingering from my medical nightmare vanish, it's a step in the right direction toward a better future. Obama needs to take this victory and run with it.

Hillary Gibson is an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley and an OtherWords intern at the Institute for Policy Studies.