The Imperative for Health Insurance Reform: A Personal, Not Policy Perspective

The recent blizzard crippled Washington, DC and provided quiet moments and lots of time to think. Sitting in my office in an almost empty NEA building for four days, with the federal government shutdown and the nation's capital almost completely bowed to Mother Nature, I had time to step back from my daily work to think about the current health insurance reform debate.

Professionally, I have been working on health insurance related issues for many years as NEA's Director of Collective Bargaining and Member Advocacy; my work has been more intensely focused on health insurance reform for well over a year now. I had to ask myself if my interest in health insurance reform is because it is part of my work responsibilities or perhaps because it puts me right in the middle of an exciting debate and gives me an opportunity to visit the White House.

I thought about those questions and more as the historic snow blanketed Washington. Part of my answer to these questions came to me through my brother, Hap, who was diagnosed with a serious form of leukemia and has had a series of treatments that continued recently with a bone marrow transplant at the Mayo Clinic. Hap is very fortunate because he has good health insurance. When I talked to him a while back he asked: "What do people without insurance do?" I didn't answer his question then because I was more interested in how he was doing and because the question was rhetorical and the answers all depressing.

According to recent studies, every day we don't pass health care reform, more than six thousand people lose their health insurance; nearly two thousand families face bankruptcy as a result of medical bills and more than 120 people die because they can't get the health care they need.

These are alarming figures, especially when you personally know someone facing these circumstances as most of us do. I'm glad my brother isn't one of those statistics. It's easier to accept that there are 46 million uninsured people in our wonderful country when you just think about them as statistics. But it's more difficult to accept that number when you think that people who don't have health insurance are mothers, fathers, sisters, neighbors and yes, they are brothers.

Another part of the answer to my question came to me from thinking about my past life as a first grade teacher in Tyler, Minnesota. I know that some 8 million children in the United States lack health insurance; I remember teaching some of those children, who often were forced to come to school and sit in class when they were too sick to learn. NEA members across this country work with many of the uninsured children and know firsthand that these children miss more school days or show up to class less ready to learn than their classmates who come from families that have health insurance. Our members know that reforming health insurance and ensuring that students have access to quality health care coverage is, at heart, an education issue. It's about our children coming to school ready to learn so that they have the knowledge they need to lead in our 21st century global society.

The final part of my answer came to me from stories of NEA members who report everyday that the continued rising cost of insurance is not sustainable for them, their school districts, or their state governments. They see their out-of-pocket costs for coverage rising annually at 10, 20, 30, or even 40 percent. Many of them are choosing to drop coverage or take home less money in order to afford coverage. All of this at a time when there are headlines that read, "Report: Top insurers made 12 billion in profits last year, dropped 2.7 million people," in the February 11 edition of Politico.

So, after doing a lot of thinking while watching the quiet snow fall, it is clear to me, clearer than ever in fact, that we definitely need health insurance reform in the United States, and we need it now. All of the uninsured, including America's children and the 46 million mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers cannot wait any longer for political maneuvering to end and the mistruths promulgated by reform opponents to be corrected. Thursday's bipartisan health care summit at the Blair House should not be about making headlines or political grandstanding -- too much is at stake.

We've come too far to turn back now. The Blizzard of 2010 was historic and so is this opportunity to bring about reform to America's health care system. The peaceful snow days allowed time to reflect on what I've known professionally for a long time and gain a deeper personal understanding of just why America needs health reform now and why we cannot afford to wait.