With 70% of Americans and Democratic candidates such as Elizabeth Warren in favour of universal healthcare, Alicia Lutes asks why it’s not more of a priority for the country’s leaders
In April 2018, I found myself unemployed and without the health insurance that went with it. I’d only recently started using my insurance in earnest—in America’s workaholic world, taking time to take care of yourself can feel selfish, unimportant, and easy to ignore. After all, when you’re young and focused on growing your career, what’s happening under the hood doesn’t register as quite so vital.
But in late 2017, I realized that my mental health was not okay, and I could no longer ignore what was going on inside of me. I started seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist, I got put on medication, I started to feel better. That foundation was ripped away from me when I no longer had insurance through my job. I was offered the option of paying for COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985, a law that created an insurance program so employees can continue their health insurance coverage after leaving employment). But at over $700 a month, plus the cost of visits and deductibles you have to meet first before your insurance even pays for anything, I knew I couldn’t afford it. So I went off my meds cold turkey and had to go it alone.
This did not work out as the optimist in me may have hoped.
Going off my medication after a series of traumatic, life-altering events, with a ton of other things happening in my personal life, nearly killed me. By October 2018, I was afraid I would take my own life. I was crying every day, not eating, not socializing, emotionally supporting my alcoholic mother from afar who was taking care of her own dying mom (who raised me), working just enough to make sure I could pay my rent, and staring at the walls. Mostly I was just waiting to die, for something to take away the pain of consciousness and dodging the daily calls from American Express about a bill I could not pay after spending months choosing to pay it instead of eating. I dealt with a lot of rejection from potential editors/employers and former friends.
My brother and I had stopped speaking a year earlier and now he was having a son I wasn’t sure I’d ever get to meet. My closest friend and our other roommate moved out of the apartment we all shared. I was trying my best but completely, totally, and utterly isolated on every front, left to fend for myself on the heels of a complex-PTSD and possible bipolar II diagnosis. I also tore my MCL and had to hobble around barely able to walk for months. Things were incredibly scary and felt hopeless on all fronts. My mental illness kept me from the security of having a job that could help me make things better.
Mental health: making it a priority
Prior to that year, taking care of my health was of intermittent importance at best, and I often had jobs (or a parent who had a job) where private health insurance plans were part of the benefits package. I took it for granted as most young people do, ignoring it (and my body) more often than not, and didn’t even think for a second about my mental health. Not really a good way for anyone to operate, but particularly for someone who has a mental illness. In many ways we are set up, as children, with a sense of security and comfort that doesn’t exist when you’re an adult in the real world, and unless you have a strong familial support system (and/or money) to lean on, getting through the day-to-day in America can often feel impossible.
But I still had one person who cared about me: my therapist from when I had insurance. She knew how isolated I was and encouraged me to apply to MediCal, aka the California Medical Assistance Program. As a resident of Los Angeles making the amount I currently do, I was eligible for coverage under the state’s Medicaid program serving low-income individuals and families. She made a point to see me whenever she had a spare hour and I had a spare $30. After months of back and forth to make sure I got the paperwork right (a very aggravating process), I was finally able to get back on my medication. It took calling several health clinics, a lot of frustration, an initial rejection (I’m bad at paperwork), and some tears, but once I found the one that was willing to help me, I was enrolled by May 2019, and fully covered on 1st August. And sure, like any program, there are valid complaints I understand and know, and issues that I, as an able-bodied, cisgendered white woman, have not experienced. But also I don’t know if I would be alive today if not for it.
Even in the short amount of time since I’ve had MediCal coverage, my life has changed what feels like a billionfold. The security of knowing I can get the healthcare I need, the medication I require, the second opinions on medical issues I ignored and finally get some definitive answers and truly understand my body, means I don’t feel completely helpless and hopeless anymore. Baby steps don’t feel Everestian in nature. It is incredibly life-affirming in a way that our current system is not.
Medicaid: why it’s so important
The modern American healthcare system is built in such a way that, if you do not have the money to afford it, it’s easy to internalize a sense that you are inadequate or bad or not worth keeping alive—it fostered within me a lot of self-hatred. Not being able to afford basic necessities can feel like an indicator of your value as a person in society. If you cannot or do not make enough money to afford to live in it by traditional, so-called “average” models, it’s easy to feel like that means you are bad and unworthy of the life you are living. And if you were lucky enough to grow up in a household where your parents had insurance, as I was, you don’t realize how much security it brings to your general sense of being until it’s gone—even if you barely ever used it.
Like I said before: I’m fairly lucky. I have my share of frustrating medical issues, but honestly, who hasn’t? Who hasn’t known someone who’s suffered a serious medical issue or life-threatening disease? Everyone knows someone who’s had cancer. And the American medical system as it stands is broken and bankrupting thousands. It is expensive to get sick in America: a couple was involved in a murder/suicide because of their crippling medical bills. Every day, a new friend shares a new heartbreaking story and a link to a GoFundMe page to help support paying down the hundreds of thousands of dollars owed to insurance companies and hospitals and not end up homeless. And every day, I’m sure several of their friends (myself among them) look at those tweets and then their bank accounts and want to cry because they can’t even afford to send their friend a couple dollars. How is this how we are all living?
I don’t want to die or live my life resenting how much it costs to maintain my health and my body: you only get one so you have to take care of it. But I do want to put an end to our current healthcare system. If a state as big as California can figure out how to manage providing what is essentially universal healthcare within our current systems, it’s proof that the whole of the United States of America can do it, too. California on its own is the fifth largest economy in the world—that’s no small potatoes when it comes to proof of concept. It’s maybe even more important evidence than the many other countries that already have some variation of it.
Democratic Presidential candidates: who’s in favour
Most all of the Democratic presidential nominees support some variation of the idea of universal health care, or “Medicare for All” as it is often called. Be it a public option or a full-on path to dismantling private health insurance, most everyone has a plan for that (though no one has as many plans as our girl, Elizabeth Warren). And guess what? 70% of Americans do, too, according to a 2018 Reuters survey. Many journalists and advocates far more skilled and intelligent than I have laid out how these plans could feasibly work, as well as the numerous benefits such a program would provide. When positing the question as to why we do not yet have universal healthcare, the New York Times provides one compelling answer. Whatever got us to this point, we must focus on the future and getting it in place.
Equality doesn’t happen overnight or with one big, sweeping change or declaration: it happens in spits and spurts, by tending to tiny measures that slowly level the playing field. But also…universal access to healthcare for all the people who call America their home would go a long way towards some more just levels. Being able to take care of yourself and advocate for your own wellbeing are incredibly empowering things. If it weren’t for MediCal, I wouldn’t be able to afford the medication, therapy, and blood tests I need to make sure my mental and physical health are where they need to be, or at least heading in the right direction. Taking care of myself is a journey rife with triggers and emotional scars—and oftentimes it’s downright scary. When you add a financial burden to the equation, no one is getting ahead (except the people who own insurance companies). And I know I’m not alone. Having even just the safety net of a system like MediCal allows someone like me the security to get healthy enough to do my best work and make enough money to support myself financially and contribute to the economy in a way that benefits everybody. And if America needs anything, it’s to get better.