Commentary Politics

Health-Care Voters Are Coming—and When Politicians Ignore Us, We’ll Vote Them Out

Laura Packard

Politicians in power are continuing to come after our health care. But this November, we are all health-care voters.

Nevada Sen. Dean Heller and other Republicans running for U.S. Congress are lying about their positions on protecting people with pre-existing conditions.

I know this because I have a pre-existing condition, and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) saved my life. I’ve been watching very closely the votes by my representatives over the last year, as I went through my own battle with cancer. I had to fight against the efforts of many of these same elected officials and candidates to save the care that saved me. I was even thrown out of Sen. Heller’s event last December for asking him about his own record on health care. And now they’re pretending as though all of this never happened.

In April 2017, I walked into a doctor’s office with a nagging cough. I walked out with a stage 4 cancer diagnosis (Hodgkin’s lymphoma). I then went through six months of chemotherapy and a month of radiation, all while begging my senator to do the right thing and protect us during the repeated battles in Congress to repeal the ACA.

Throughout my treatment last year, I woke up every day to fight my own government in order to keep my insurance and stay alive. Every single GOP health-care bill up for consideration last year would have left those of us with pre-existing conditions at risk: either by allowing insurers not to cover us at all, by allowing them to price us out of coverage, or by allowing them to pick and choose which treatments to cover—leaving us with junk insurance that only works on paper. More than 130 million Americans have pre-existing conditions, and many of us need insurance to survive. But unfortunately, that did not stop Republican politicians from threatening our care again and again in what felt like a hellish Groundhog Day remake. All we wanted was for them to do the right thing and protect people with pre-existing conditions, while making health care more affordable and accessible to all. But they could not or would not do that.

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I made many calls over the last year to my senator’s office and shared my story over and over with elected officials and in local events when physically able to attend. But the U.S. House of Representatives nevertheless voted to repeal the ACA via the American Health Care Act (AHCA) just one day after my first day of chemotherapy in May 2017 (my representative, Jacky Rosen, voted against it). Republicans celebrated the move, which would have left 23 million more people uninsured, with “cases upon cases” of beer.

The House voting for tax cuts for the rich in the AHCA at the expense of the sick was perhaps not a surprise. But I thought surely the Senate would stop this, and stand up for us. I shared my story with Sen. Heller via a viral video: “I’m begging Senator Heller, on days when I can’t get out of bed, please get out of bed, and be my legs, be my arms, vote no on Trumpcare and save my life.” I taped that video from my bed, recovering from one of my chemo treatments.

But Sen. Heller did not listen. He had promised in a press conference that June with Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval to protect us. Then he went back on that promise at the end of July and voted to take away our health care.

President Trump leaned on him, and Heller folded like a cheap suit. Despite everything he had said, Heller chose to vote for repeal anyway. Thankfully, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) stood up for us, and voted down repeal. McCain cast the honorable vote that my own senator did not.

I also shared my story with President Trump on Twitter many times. But instead of listening to my voice, he blocked me that fall as the Senate was again gearing up to repeal our health care . I went straight from the chemo chair to MSNBC to plead the case for those of us with pre-existing conditions, and at that time Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) said she would not support the latest repeal bill (the Graham-Cassidy-Heller bill, which my own senator insultingly backed.) Thankfully, that effort to repeal the ACA failed too.

But they weren’t finished. The GOP did succeed in stripping away a key part of the ACA, the individual mandate, and increasing our premium costs with their sabotage when they went ahead with their tax scam bill. White House officials and Speaker Paul Ryan all acknowledged those tax cuts will be paid for by cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. Their attacks on our care have not slowed down, and they will try again next year unless we stop them.

Last December, the day after my 15th radiation treatment, I finally got to question my senator face to face. I went to a public forum of Heller’s, sponsored by the LIBRE Initiative. But instead of answering my question about his health-care votes, he did nothing as I was thrown out for daring to ask the question. And now, I’m being personally attacked by Heller because he cannot face his own record.

In just the past few months, we have seen the Trump administration finalize a rule for junk insurance plans, raise health-care costs, and continue to pad the pockets of the wealthiest one percent. The return of unregulated junk insurance is especially meaningful to me, because as a self-employed person, I used to have a junk insurance plan before the ACA. If I still had that plan today, I would be bankrupt or dead from lack of coverage for my care. It cost about a million dollars to keep me alive last year—money which I don’t have, and most of us don’t have either.

As I write this, I am sitting in the back of a bright blue tour bus, which will have been my home for six weeks by the time I step off it for the last time in Florida. I’m traveling nearly 12,000 miles across 24 states with Protect Our Care, meeting with health-care warriors of all shapes and sizes including parents of special needs kids; nurses and doctors; and mayors, state, and federal leaders.

We’re all here because we want to be, and because we have to. My friend Amanda Itliong is battling ovarian cancer for the fourth time: She needs good health insurance to stay alive and thrive. Amanda was late to our Lansing event because she had to pull over first and be sick in a parking lot due to side effects from her chemo treatments. But we do what we have to do.

My new friend Stacey Vernallis in Pittsburgh has lived through congestive heart failure, a stroke, and a heart transplant. Despite these serious health challenges, neither of us is going to quit fighting, because this fight is literally life-or-death for us, and millions of others.

Many of our stories are incredible to hear. But 130 million people in this country from all walks of life, and all kinds of pre-existing conditions—from asthma to diabetes to double lung transplants—are at risk when Republicans threaten our care. Everyone is just one accident or illness away from having a pre-existing condition, and we all need to make sure that we can get health care to survive and thrive.

And so I am traveling across the country on this bus in these final days before the midterm elections, holding events with other health-care activists to make sure that every person in the United States knows about the GOP’s attacks against us and their sabotage of our health care—and can hold them accountable.

Though the public has said “enough is enough,” the politicians in power are continuing to come after our health care. And now they’re barefaced lying about it. One Republican elected official after another claims they are protecting people with pre-existing conditions, but their own records show they voted to take away our care. The GOP is gaslighting us, and we will not stand for it. We’re raising the voices of Americans from coast to coast to protect our care from the lawmakers who remain obsessed with attacking the lives of the people they were elected to serve.

I don’t know what comes next for me. My doctors told me at the beginning of the year that I’m in remission, and I hope to have many more years to come. But the reality is that I need to get scanned every six months for cancer, and there’s the very real possibility that it comes back. In December, I’ll have my next scan. But for now, I am using every day and every moment I am gifted with to fight back for people like me with pre-existing conditions.

When politicians attack our health care, the American people are watching; when they lie about it, we hold them accountable; and when politicians ignore our voices, the American people will vote them out. We are all health-care voters now.

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