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Mental Illness, Tucson and the Urgent Need for Universal Care

by Ed Weisbart

I don’t know whether Jared Loughner had health insurance coverage, but the terrible events in Tucson got me thinking about an uninsured patient I saw last month at a massive one-day mobile free clinic for the uninsured in North Carolina. This was an event sponsored by the apolitical non-partisan National Association of Free Clinics (NAFC) and it delivered free care to over 1,200 uninsured people.

I saw a very worried mother with her 22-year-old son. He had told her a week earlier that he was hearing voices that were telling him to hurt people. He told her he’d actually been hearing voices for seven years, but as it embarrassed him and they were never very scary he’d not mentioned it until last week. Now this new message was terrifying him, and the voices were becoming increasing compelling. He told me that he didn’t know how much longer he could continue to hold them off.

His mother had tried calling several local psychiatrists but they all refused to see him without insurance. She was reluctant to go to the local emergency room as they had given her a really difficult time in the past due to her own lack of insurance. She was about at her wits’ end, and then saw a notice about NAFC’s one-day free clinic.

When I saw him there, he was clearly very agitated and worried. He looked to me like he could start taking action at any moment. Fortunately, we had a psychiatrist who was also volunteering his day there and we were able to get him immediately into an aggressive care plan.

We all know that lack of health insurance in America is a tremendous problem. Some 45,000 Americans die every year from lack of insurance. More than half of bankruptcies are from unpredictably high medical costs.  Our businesses struggle to compete globally with other nations that have more rationally solved this problem.

I don’t believe it’s nearly as well recognized, however, that when our neighbors don’t have insurance, we’re all at risk too. My patient’s lack of insurance jeopardized each and every one of us.

Partial solutions and incomplete answers are just not acceptable in a country like ours. We simply have to find a way to have universal access to high quality of care, or we will all continue to pay the price, sometimes at point-blank range.

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