In 2000, I got into a terrible car accident that injured my spinal cord. There was no treatment that would bring my body back. My doctors told me I wouldn’t be able to work anymore. Six years later, my daughter was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension. The treatment forced her to take time off and made it impossible to stand for 8 to 12 hours a day as her job required. She was fired soon after and lost her life-saving, “employer-based” health insurance on the same day.
She died from her illness within a year.
Today, as I write this, Congress is considering the largest expansion to Medicare ever. The original proposal would have ensured dental, vision and hearing coverage for the first time. Hearing benefits and the power to negotiate drug prices are still in there, but dental and vision were slashed.
Had the original bill passed in its entirety, this type of investment in people would instantly, dramatically improve the quality of life for millions of Americans. Suddenly, I would be able to afford a second hearing aid and a new pair of eyeglasses I’ve been putting off, unable to justify the out-of-pocket expense. I wouldn’t have to worry every month about whether or not I can afford the life-sustaining insulin I rely on. And frankly, if Congress had taken action sooner, I might have been able to get my daughter on state-based healthcare, and she might be alive today.
After becoming unemployable in the years following my accident, I relied on Social Security and Disability Insurance (SSDI) and other government assistance programs to get by. The social safety net worked — until it didn’t. I received around $900 a month in SSDI and food assistance, but rent alone cost $500. My landlord tried to be helpful, but it wasn’t long before I faced eviction. I cycled through homelessness and transitional housing in and around Seattle for nearly three years.
My daughter found work at a fast food restaurant where she eventually became manager and began raising a family of three children — whom I now have been raising using my social security. For my three grandchildren, we were able to afford the basics: food and clothing, even if they were never name brands.
They are tender-hearted children, as losing a mother at ages eight, five and three will do that to you. Now, they’re 17, 19 and 22, and I’m thinking about how lucky we were to have each other when we did, but also the sadness and heartbreak they had to live through. What could have been if they didn’t have to struggle as kids?
A good life shouldn’t be left to luck. We can make choices about how and when people seek and receive the health treatments they need. We can make choices to ensure that access to quality healthcare doesn’t come at the cost of bankrupting anyone into a life of poverty and instability ever again. We can do all of those things, and today, that begins with passing the President’s Build Back Better plan, which includes giving Congress the authority to negotiate drug prices.
But we shouldn’t give up the fight for benefits like vision and dental care.
It’s hard to lose anyone you love, but when it’s your child, it feels like ripping a part of you out. Years later, it is still difficult to deal with. Part of that difficulty rests in knowing that my daughter’s story is not yet laid to rest. I’ve told it before, and there are millions of Americans who’ve lost a family member to an easily preventable illness only because they couldn’t afford it. That’s unacceptable. Still, we feel a sense of shame.
I tell my story because I want people to tell theirs and to feel like they’re not alone when they do. We must work together to make these systems work for us, and this is my humble submission to that fight.
Gina Owens is a board member of Washington CAN. She has been a long-time community advocate and activist on health care, homelessness, housing and hunger issues.
Read more of the Nov. 17-23, 2021 issue.