Naval Air Force veteran John Weigel, who considered suicide because of $139,000 in medical debt, offered Sen. Bernie Sanders his brown leather flight jacket on Monday to thank the Democratic presidential candidate for his help regaining health insurance and raising funds to cover medical bills.
"Thank you for rescuing me," Weigel, a 58-year-old who lives with Huntington's disease, told Sanders (I-Vt.) at a campaign rally in Carson City, Nevada. The White House hopeful responded that "it's a beautiful jacket. It's a jacket that you earned and I want you to keep it." However, Sanders did accept a flight patch from the jacket.
"As a nation, we can disagree about a war. We can disagree about foreign policy, but when brave people like John put their lives on the line to defend our country, when they come home, they will receive the best quality healthcare that this country can provide them," Sanders said to enthusiastic applause from the audience. "And they will not have to go deeply in debt or be harassed by bill collectors for some stupid bureaucratic reason."
When I met John, a veteran, a few months ago, he had $139,000 in medical debt.
Thankfully today he is doing much better.
We must eliminate all medical debt—and when our veterans come home, they must receive the best quality health care this country can provide them. pic.twitter.com/URQfPkBsnS
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) December 9, 2019
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The exchange came after Weigel told Sanders at a campaign town hall in September that he was contemplating suicide because of his medical debt and health insurance issues. After that event, Weigel spoke with Sanders' wife, Jane, and was assisted by representatives from the offices of Democratic Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen, who both represent Nevada.
Weigel said Monday he was able to get his military health insurance retroactively reinstated and he only had to pay $29.50 for each month it had lapsed. A GoFundMe page was launched on his behalf to help him pay down the debt. More than 2,100 donors have given over $45,000 to the fundraiser.
"The GoFundMe thing—all the support that people would write was good, and then having the monetary security," Weigel told The Nevada Independent after the event Monday. "I'm not getting rich. I'm living like I'm a refugee, so that helped a lot."
Supporters of creating a national healthcare program that provides universal coverage often point to GoFundMe campaigns as evidence of the widespread need to transition to a single-payer system in the United States. Sanders, a longtime leading advocate of Medicare for All, has turned "I wrote the damn bill" into a key campaign message.
Weigel told the Independent he wished Sanders would have accepted the gift of the flight jacket.
"It would've meant a lot to me if he would've taken it," Weigel said.