PERSPECTIVE: At what cost? Why health care is a right

Allison Lazarus

by Cody Pomeranz ’11, Sports Section Editor

Nikki White should be alive today.  She should be at her home in Tennessee enjoying a fruitful and long life.  She should be laughing with her friends and her mother, Gail.  She should be pursuing her ambitions to become a doctor.  But she isn’t.  While so many of us have our eyes set on futures of success in our careers and families, she didn’t live long enough to see those hopes come true.  She never got the chance.

Nikki was diagnosed with lupus at age 21.  Lupus has no cure, but is very treatable.  In fact, around 90% of those plagued by lupus go on to live a normal lifespan.  You’d think she’d be the same.  But, as T.R. Reid notes in his new book The Healing of America, Nikki suffered from a problem that plagues millions of Americans today: she was too rich to be eligible for Medicaid, but too poor to afford insurance.  She fell into a helpless abyss. This is not to say she never had insurance.  In fact, she had a job that provided it.  However, as her condition worsened, Nikki became unemployed.  And with the loss of her job came the loss of her health insurance.  Though lupus is treatable with modern day medicine, it is fatal without medical care.  When she should have been receiving care for her disease, Nikki White spent her last three months of her life desperately writing letters to insurance companies.  However, her efforts were to no avail, as all the companies denied her claim due to her pre-existing condition.  In 2006, Nikki White was rushed to the emergency room where she was given immediate care.  But it was too little too late.  She died months later.  Nikki White was only 32 years old.  As Reid points out, if she had lived in any other rich country in the world, she would be alive today.

Nikki White was 32 years old.
Nikki White was 32 years old.

The problem in the health care debate today is not that one party has better ideas than the other, but that amidst fierce deliberation over reform, we have dehumanized the issue.  We have lost sight of what we are truly arguing about, and who we are truly arguing for.  We see the 30 plus million Americans who lack health insurance as merely a statistic on a page.  But what we forget is that there are people behind these numbers, there are faces to every figure, and there is a story for every flaw in the American health care system; a story like that of Nikki White, who was taken long before her time was up.

The United States is the richest country on earth.  We spend over 15% of our GDP on health care, more than any other nation.  Yet we fail to provide care for every citizen, not to mention that the costs of care are the highest in the world.  In fact, over 60% of bankruptcies filed are due to health insurance costs.  Is this acceptable?  As a country of unprecedented freedom and wealth, should the Nikki White’s of the nation die without notice from preventable diseases because they couldn’t afford medical care?  This issue is polemical and complex.  But at its heart, it is moral.  It transcends politics.  It is not a Republican issue or a Democrat issue.  It is not a liberal issue or a conservative issue.  It’s an American issue.  If we wish to continue to be a beacon of light to the world, a paragon of excellence to fellow nations, we can no longer ignore this question: is health care a privilege or a right?

When I was in fifth grade, I contracted a serious disease called bacterial tracheitis.  After two of the sickest days in my life, I went to the emergency room.  Had I waited another day, I would not be here to write this article.  After a long wait, the doctor looked at my x-ray incredulously.  My condition was far more serious than he had anticipated.  “It requires immediate surgery,” he told my sobbing mother. “His airway is completely closed.  If we don’t do it now, he’ll suffocate.” The surgery worked.  But it wasn’t because I had a healthy body or a relentless will.  I made it because I could afford it.  I made it because I had insurance that covered my surgery.  The fact that the reason I’m alive today and Nikki White is not is because she had a preexisting condition and couldn’t afford insurance is not only unacceptable, but sad, tragic, and frankly, un-American.

The right to be treated for a disease out of one’s control should not be dependent on economic status.  Nikki White didn’t have a right to be rich, but she had a right to live.  She was not lazy, poor, or unhealthy by choice.  She was not looking for a handout.  She was a bright, young, college-educated girl from a middle class family. She had a right, like everyone else, to not die from something that could have been easily prevented.  As Mr. Reid explains, 3,000 people died on 9/11 and this county spent billions of dollars trying to prevent that from happening again.  Yet 20,000 plus people die a year from preventable diseases because they don’t have access to health care.  Where is their protection?

This is not a partisan call for “socialized medicine.”  This is not a political argument against or in support of conservative or liberal philosophy. This is not an endorsement of the bill currently in the Senate or an approbation of President Obama’s policies.  This is a plea to remember the human aspect of this issue.  In response to the question of whether healthcare is a right, I respond with an unequivocal yes.  Nikki White was 32.  She didn’t deserve to do die.  She had a right to live.  “Nikki didn’t die from lupus,” her doctor told Mr. Reid.  “Nikki died from complications of the failing American health care system.”  I’ve spent an hour writing this article; and in that hour, two more Nikki Whites were taken by the flaws in the American healthcare system. Is this the America we so proudly live in?

Pill photo courtesy of brighamandwomens.org.  Nikki White photo courtesy of nytimes.com.