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Post-Debate Musings: Bernie’s Heart and His Courage Just Fine with Me

It will be nice when all of the candidates stop lying about how badly we Americans want to keep our private coverage. Are you kidding?

Democratic presidential hopefuls California Senator Kamala Harris (L) and former Vice President Joe Biden (R) applaud Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders during the fourth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season co-hosted by The New York Times and CNN at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio on October 15, 2019. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Democratic presidential hopefuls California Senator Kamala Harris (L) and former Vice President Joe Biden (R) applaud Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders during the fourth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season co-hosted by The New York Times and CNN at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio on October 15, 2019. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Fourteen days from now I will know what it’s like to have Medicare coverage. For the past 64 years and 11 months, I have been at the mercy of a for-profit insurance and health system that doesn’t forgive illness or injury and never forgets my age.  Since 2006, my husband has had Medicare coverage.  I don’t.  I am younger by 10 years.  I ought to be healthier, and that’s the way we planned things.  We figured at this stage of our lives I would be still healthy enough to help care for my husband should the need arise and that we might even be able to relax into retirement somehow.  Our system does not allow that, but it could.

My tall, slender, athletic and outdoorsman husband had his first heart-bypass surgery when he was 46 years old—almost 30 years ago.  Since then, he has had iliac artery bypass, two more open-heart surgeries, carotid artery bypass and more.  He worked until he could not anymore, and he has been able to care for his health and his well-being for more than 13 years now due to the freedom from worry about health coverage.  Yes, he has Medicare and a supplement plan (another topic for another day), and we never once worried about taking him to get checked out or get care when needed.  He does not abuse the system—ever—as he far prefers being outdoors, playing a round of golf with his senior league or otherwise enjoying a relatively active retirement at 75.  

Sen. Bernie Sanders and the author in June of 2011, when Sanders was at a Washington, D.C. rally after introducing his Medicare for all legislation, the American Health Security Act. (Photo: Courtesy of Donna Smith)Then there is me.  I have spent the past 30 years doing whatever I had to do to stay employed by companies and organizations offering decent health benefits.  Until we had my husband on Medicare, I knew my effort was life or death for him.  I was diagnosed with cancer in 1999 (and a couple more times later), yet nothing could stop me from working and keeping those benefits.  I did not take care of myself except to do whatever it took to get to and from work and outperform anyone who might take my job from me and my lease on health benefits.  I took massive amounts of over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory meds and other prescription pain meds when I could get them.  I propped myself up with asthma meds when I wheezed, and I stayed current on everything professional.  

By the time we appeared in SiCKO, Michael Moore’s 2007 award winning documentary about healthcare, we had been bankrupted by medical debt and crisis.  I testified to the House Judiciary on July 17, 2007, about medical debt, crisis and bankruptcy, and the person who sat next to me and also testified that day was then Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren.  

We had never gone without health insurance because I had done whatever it took to keep it.  Now, my body is really in trouble.  My health has suffered.  My spirit has suffered.  I often didn’t go to the doctor when I needed to, and sometimes only to get a quick fix to keep me working.  Employers were all too happy to take advantage of that hard work ethic run amok, and I knew it.

Now, after having a terrible gastric hemorrhage in 2014, I am being mercilessly dunned by the same hospital where I was treated and that infected me with MRSA.  I became septic back then, had to have surgery to remove a vein in my left arm from my wrist to my chest wall, had pulmonary emboli that damaged my lungs, had to have IV antibiotics for six weeks, and never really recovered my strength following that siege.  But that doesn’t stop Chez MRSA (what I call St. Joseph’s Hospital in Denver) from going after me for money with a vengeance. Talk to a lawyer, people say.  Really?  Come on.  The legal system only allows the wealthy to afford bringing cases like this—poor people don’t lose much and aren’t worth much in our system, after all. So I argue with them some.  But the financial damage and the collection calls aren’t the worst of it.

The biggest damage to my life is the loss of relationships with people I love.  You see, as hard as I worked and as strong as I stayed, I still seemed poor because I was.  Every extra dollar went to health insurance premiums, co-pays, deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses.  Even after working us back out of poverty when I worked for National Nurses United, the nation's largest nurse union, it took only two years of ill health for me to slump again after I left their employ due to ill health.  Many in my family saw me as a failure.  Many friends stopped coming around.  People said we had a dark cloud around us, and people blamed us for not being better decision-makers when we were younger.  Those rear-view crystal balls are awesome, apparently.

"Thank you, Bernie, for knowing my life mattered."Now I struggle to find meaning in staying alive. I fight depression, anxiety and thoughts of suicide.  I feel so angry and diminished sometimes that I cannot see how I can finish this gig of life any other way and just get out of the way.  I grub for money and beg people who no longer want to hear from me because I am at a loss as to how I am supposed to endure.  

So much more to this story, but let’s fast forward to the debate last night. I watched with millions of others as the same worn out debate about Medicare for All played out in Ohio at the Democratic Presidential Debate.  I was most interested in what the truths would be and what the mistruths might be—who lined up pro Medicare for All and who was wavering.  It is my litmus test as a 2020 voter.  I do not care if folks decide to call me out as foolish because I have had enough.  My life—along with my physical, financial, and emotional health—have all been devastated by a lack of access to the same quality healthcare that would be provided to everybody under Medicare for All.

I wanted to hear ones of my heroes, Elizabeth Warren, just say that a premium tax would indeed help pay for Medicare for all, but she didn’t.  She danced around it, again. It’s a quick, easy answer, Elizabeth. “Yes, we will have a premium tax that helps pay for this.  That premium tax replaces your current private health insurance premium.”   Other ideas for funding are great too as is pointing out that the money required to run our healthcare system now is already in the trillions per year, and we’re not getting our money’s worth nor is everyone fully covered. How tough can that be?  I am disappointed that she did not say that.

When the commentators asked Bernie about his health, I was not surprised.  I was thrilled to hear his clear, powerful and oft-repeated answer over many years on Medicare for All.  He knows he was lucky.  He knows my husband is lucky, and he knows I am not.  Having guaranteed, cost-effective coverage doesn’t harm the nation; it strengthens the nation.  

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I would wager that Bernie’s access to care means he is just fine and even stronger than many of the others on that stage last night.  My husband is strong and energetic at 75 because he had access to coverage.  Medicare for All will save lives  Democrats need to "have the guts," Sanders said Tuesday night. Indeed.

It will be nice when all of the candidates stop lying about how badly we Americans want to keep our private coverage.  Are you kidding?  My private coverage would dump me in an instant if they could, and they have cost me nearly everything.

In 14 days, I’ll finally be on Medicare. I’ve nearly made it.  So thank you, Bernie, for knowing my life mattered as much as my husband’s or yours.

Donna Smith

Donna Smith
Donna Smith Donna Smith is the national chair of the Healthcare Not Warfare campaign for Progressive Democrats of America.  She was featured in Michael Moore’s 2007 documentary, SiCKO.

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