NEWARK, Ohio - As debate rages on how to reform the U.S. healthcare system, many of the one in six Americans now without medical insurance are hoping that reform brings at least one thing -- affordable coverage.
"I'd like to have some sort of health insurance I could actually afford," said Stuart Burrows, a Vietnam War veteran in Newark, a small town in central Ohio. "I stand to lose everything I ever worked for if I can't pay my medical bills."
Burrows, 61, said he was exposed in Vietnam to Agent Orange, a toxic mix of herbicides used by the U.S. military as a defoliant that has since been linked to numerous diseases.
He is retired on partial disability. But in March he had emergency surgery to remove blockages in his arteries and now owes tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills, since his veteran's disability only covers service-related health issues and he has no other insurance.
"I thought I had finally reached a point where I could relax and own something," Burrows said in the living room of his modest, five-room house. "But now I can't because they may take my house and throw me into the street."
Burrows is one of 46 million Americans -- in a population of 300 million -- without health insurance. Reforming the $2.5 trillion U.S. healthcare industry, including affordable coverage for the uninsured, is a top priority for President Barack Obama and a major test for his young presidency.
With unified opposition by most Republicans in Congress, the debate over healthcare reform has been heated and has left many Americans wary of Obama's desire for a "public option" -- a government-run non-profit insurer to offer coverage that private for-profit health insurers currently do not.
Many among the uninsured say they find the reform plans confusing, but believe the current system is unsustainable.
"I've heard a lot of crazy things about health reform and I'm worried about how the country will pay for it," said Moira McKamey, 52, an unemployed worker in southwestern Ohio who is retraining as a medical assistant. "But healthcare is in a critical state and something must be done."
'NO INSURER WILL COVER ME'
Many of the uninsured say they would pay for affordable coverage and many are angry at private health insurers.
But according to opinion polls, Americans are divided over plans to reform the healthcare industry. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released on September 14 showed 46 percent of respondents in favor of Obama's healthcare reform plans and 48 percent opposed. A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll released the same day showed 51 percent in favor and 46 percent opposed.
Polls of the uninsured are rare. But a May 2009 survey by Rasmussen Reports of uninsured voters showed 56 percent described the U.S. healthcare system as poor and 48 percent said health costs had caused them to miss credit card or mortgage payments.
"Healthcare in this country sucks," said Charlotta Shepherd, 54, who runs a beauty salon near Oconto Falls, Wisconsin and cannot afford health insurance.
"If countries like Canada and Germany can provide affordable healthcare to everyone, why can't we?"
One reason is the hot-button social issues that critics and opponents have included in the complex debate, whether factual or not. In a nationally televised speech to Congress on October 9, Obama assailed the "scare tactics" of his opponents, such as claims of death panels to decide the fate of senior citizens or free healthcare for illegal immigrants.
"We have already have death panels," said Gloria Smith, Stuart Burrows' partner. "They're called insurance companies."
The country's 12 million or more illegal immigrants have been a special target of the attacks on Obama's reform plans.
Samuel Rolden, 33, an illegal immigrant in Phoenix, Arizona, said he could probably afford a low-cost public option healthcare plan.
"If they offered me a medical insurance plan that cost $100 for my family, I'd pay it. But if they want $250 to $450 a month, I can't pay it," he said. "How are we going to be able to eat or pay the rent?"
There are also those like Devin Baty, 32, a former music teacher in the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood. He is unable to work because of an "organic tick disorder," which sounds innocuous. But when he has an attack his entire upper body shakes violently in a way that is painful to watch.
He has just become eligible for coverage under the government's Medicare program because he is disabled, but this does not include medications, which cost him $400 a month. He spent years without any coverage and said that "without financial help from my mother we would have lost our house."
Baty said he is now skeptical of private insurers.
"No insurer will cover me because of my condition," Baty said. "I don't know what Americans feel they would be giving up with a public option. But just from a philosophical standpoint you will never convince me that someone making a profit from my healthcare would make the best decisions on how to treat me."
(Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Eric Walsh)