When I was an activist with ACT UP in New York, we would often chant, “Health care is a right!” while picketing government official‘s fundraisers who refused to help men and women dying of AIDS or even acknowledge them with a comment more civilized than “good riddance.” The thought that health care might indeed be a government-acknowledged right, not just a universal necessity, was relatively new in American discourse.
However, a year ago this week, I watched the congressional roll call on CSPAN on the vote for The Affordable Care Act, sometimes called pejoratively Obamacare, as if “care” were somehow a dirty word, and I remembered my dozens of friends who died from AIDS in the 1980s, sweet, young gay men who might have been by now honest bankers, elected officials, scientists on the way to important discoveries, and tenured faculty members. I cried imagining how different their lives would have been if only there had been such a bill in place for them when they were in crisis.
But this isn’t New York — this is Mississippi, where I live now. ACT UP is a distant memory. The people around here, not activists, not fabulous urban gay men in the big Northeastern Cities, but ordinary working folks with families — they are the ones who are being told by the new Republican congress that the Affordable Healthcare Act is unnecessary, an invasion of their privacy and a stripping of their freedoms. Can this be so?
Not according to a Mississippian named Kelly, who was kind enough to show me a photo of her lovely family and to allow me to tell a bit of their story in relation to this wonderful piece of landmark legislation. Let me share with you Kelly’s family photograph right here — a shout out to the Jacobs family, who are — Chase, Graham, Paul, the one the folks lovingly call “Mamasita,” Jennifer, and Kelly herself :
This typical, American heartland, apple pie family has benefited, Kelly tells me, from the Affordable Care Act in the following ways:
- First, Paul, the fifty-something guy in the beige hat and sun glasses wearing a pretty hip t-shirt for a guy his age — he works full-time and has insurance, but he suffers from Lupus, which if untreated might end his life. The so-called Obamacare has made him able to stay active and working because he has not had the Lupus called a “pre-existing condition” by an insurance company, and as such, he can afford medication and doctor’s visits that might otherwise be out of reach.
- The despised Obamacare has also allowed him to have the kind of humane security we all need — to know that if we ever need to or want to leave a job, we can take our insurance with us or find other insurance in a manner that we can afford, even if we have suffered in that job change a drop in income. This goes for Jenny and Kelly, too, of course.
- Mamista, the lady next to Paul who looks beamingly proud of her tribe, holding the family kitty cat, she is still covered under her Medicare benefits — despite the rumors to the contrary fueled by insurance company activists, who see this law as a loss in profits, nothing at all has been taken away from her, and she has the peace of mind of knowing that these people who are literally surrounding her in love, her support group through her golden years, won’t have to give up their own health to take care of her in years to come.
- Chase and Graham, both college students at the top of the photo, looking young and rowdy — their momma doesn’t have to worry — they can be covered on her insurance because the Affordable Care Act makes it so they can stay on her insurance until they are 26 , whether or not they are in school. That means that the Jacobs family, which is doubtless making significant sacrifices to have two sons in college right now — Kelly didn’t tell me this, but that’s surely only because people from down here in Mississippi are a whole lot less whiny than they are in Brooklyn where I used to whine — they can better afford to pay tuition and college-related expenses and don’t have to worry about Chase breaking his arm on the hockey team (honestly, I don’t know if Chase plays hockey) or Graham slipping on an icy stairwell and hurting his knee because GOD FORBID these things should happen, they can see a doctor and get treated as needed.
- Jenny is able to know that she can work freelance if she wants to and still buy into a community pool insurance, a whole lot cheaper than trying to buy insurance as an individual in the pre-ACA days, where a woman of childbearing years might as well have tried to insure a luxury yacht moored in pirate-infested waters near Somalia as buy herself some regular, don’t-make-me-lose-my-home-and-car-if-I-need-an-MRI health insurance.
Many people on the Left were hoping for a single-payer plan in the mix of Obamacare — I know I was. Many people on the Right have not fully absorbed the idea that — chant it with me — health care is a right, health care is a right — but ALL of us benefit from a healthy America, one where people don’ t go to the emergency room with a stroke because they didn’t have insurance to afford, say, cholesterol drugs. We were the only developed country on the planet that had no particular governmental plan to handle this universal need, and now we do.
It is an important part of our evolution as a nation that Americans can get treated for ailments without losing the family farm now, and we have the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress (like my rep, who is just fabulous, The Hon. Bennie Thompson, D-MS) to thank for it.
I remember my friends who died of AIDS fighting for an evolution in our thinking about healthcare with a particular wistfulness this week, but I am glad that the law that has come about does not just benefit an urban gay male population — rather it is for every one of us, whoever we are, whether we would have picketed as I did or not.
Chant it again, and call your Senators and remind them — health care is a right, health care is a right.