I knew from the title of the Congressional hearing at which I was invited to testify last Friday – “Unaffordable: Impact of Obamacare on Americans’ Health Insurance” – that the lawmakers in charge would have little interest in the facts I planned to share with them. But I’ll have to admit that I wasn’t prepared for the harsh reception I encountered from a few of the members.
You’d think I’d be shockproof by now when it comes to the fealty members of Congress show to their insurance industry campaign contributors. After all, I used to cover Congress as a reporter. I had testified before four other House and Senate committees in recent years. And I had even written a book, Deadly Spin, which describes how easily corporate executives can have their way with elected officials simply by opening their checkbooks.
Despite all that, I was stunned when Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.), accused me of being disingenuous because I told the story of a Florida woman who might be alive today had she not been blackballed by insurance companies after being treated for breast cancer several years ago.
I told the committee about the losing battles Leslie Elder fought in more recent years not only against another form of easily treatable cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but also against the insurance industry, health care providers and even the bank that held her mortgage. Leslie died at age 63 last summer, leaving her husband with a mountain of unpaid medical bills, a depleted savings account and their family home in foreclosure.
My point in telling Leslie’s story was to remind members of the House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Health that life-saving medical care before Obamacare not only was unaffordable but also inaccessible to millions of Americans because of common practices of profit-obsessed health insurance companies and many health care providers.
I noted that the average premium for family coverage had increased 131 percent in the decade before Obamacare was passed – far faster than workers’ wages and even medical inflation – which was among the many reasons why reform was needed in the first place. Other reasons included the urgent need to end the practices of the insurance industry that have resulted in 50 million Americans being uninsured, practices like cancelling policies of cancer victims just as they were about to start treatment and refusing to sell coverage to millions of other people because of pre-existing conditions. People like Leslie Elder.
Rep. Ellmers, a former nurse, accused me of being disingenuous because, she insisted, Elder had to be an anomaly, that no one in this country has to forego treatment and die prematurely because of a lack of insurance or money. She knew this, she said, because someone at a cancer treatment center in her hometown of Dunn, North Carolina, had assured her that no one was denied treatment at their facility because of a lack of insurance.
I started to explain why many people encounter the same barriers to care that Leslie Elder faced, and that while cancer centers will accept uninsured patients, most will start treatment only after they provide evidence that they have enough money to pay for their care out of their own pockets. I also hoped to tell her about a 2008 American Cancer Society study showing that uninsured cancer patients are nearly twice as likely to die within five years as those with private coverage. I wanted to tell her these things, but she cut me off mid-sentence.
In my opening remarks, I explained that the insurance industry has launched a big PR and lobbying campaign to get Congress to repeal some of the most important consumer protections in Obamacare. I added that they are counting on lawmakers either to have amnesia or to turn a blind eye to the many problems that existed, especially those caused by insurers, before reform was enacted.
After the hearing, it was clear to me that insurers can still count on many in Congress to do both.