A photo of a sign from a protest that says, "Life is a pre-existing condition. Keep America Covered!!"

Ted Eytan/CC 2.0


Ted Eytan/CC 2.0

Senator McCain Has Great Healthcare. Shouldn’t We?

Taxpayers foot the bill to insure Congress. So why are our senators and representatives so desperate to let us die?

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Forgoing health insurance that you can’t afford is a gamble: You’re betting that you won’t get really sick or, God forbid, injured or discover that you’ve had a bad ticker or something all along; you’re betting that that, if you do, the deadline for signing up for COBRA won’t have passed or that one doctor’s visit won’t cost you more out of pocket than the health insurance you hadn’t signed up for; you’re betting that if all your other bets fail, somehow the financial burden of whatever health care your uninsured ass absolutely, positively couldn’t possible go without for just a little bit longer won’t really force you to declare bankruptcy or drain all of your savings.

Most Americans have had to make that calculation at some point, when your health insurance didn’t kick in for 30 or 60 or 90 days at a new job, or your unemployment check covered your rent and your COBRA but not both, or you were just dead broke but somehow not broke enough to qualify for Medicaid (if you had the time to even figure out how to jump through the hoops to apply for it). Me, well, I remember keenly the exquisite humiliation of once calling my doctor from my office at my new job and asking the nurse what a visit would cost out of pocket because my insurance hadn’t kicked in yet but I was pretty sure that my then-aggravated preexisting condition wasn’t going to wait another 32 days to get checked out.

That’s why, to a lot of Americans, listening to Republicans talk about the “liberty” of not having to either buy health insurance or pay a fine for going without is risible: Most people would prefer not to go without, if at all possible, and more than half of us now think that the government should bear some responsibility for making sure we have access to coverage. (And solidly more than half of Republicans on the economic margins believe that, too, probably because they’d had to make the mental calculation of whether they could afford to go without, not whether they’d like to.) We don’t decide to do without health-insurance coverage because we don’t want it; we mostly just look at our bank accounts and hope that we won’t lose more than what we already don’t have by abstaining.

Which brings us to the plight of Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who went into the hospital last week to have a blood clot removed from his brain and has since been diagnosed with an aggressive, cancerous brain tumor. McCain was reportedly admitted to the hospital to have the clot removed after a routine physical—which only about 15 percent of Americans overall and only 21 percent of uninsured Americans in poor health actually get—and, because of his surgery and recovery, he wasn’t able to vote in favor of any of the Senate bills to repeal and/or replace Obamacare, scuttling their chances at passing this week.

McCain’s illness also came in the wake of reports that the Senate bill, which would rapidly increase the number of uninsured Americans by making health coverage significantly less affordable, would also exempt senators’ health-insurance coverage from the essential benefits waivers. (In other words, the legislation would force health-insurance companies to cover various medical expenses for senators that those same companies would be allowed to deny coverage for to the senators’ constituents.) McCain’s absence preserves—at least for the time being—the status quo of Obamacare, from which many Americans have benefitted, and it comes as a result of McCain’s quality health insurance for which all Americans have paid, through their taxes.

As a philosopher once said, it’s like a no-smoking sign on your cigarette break.

In a year—if not a decade—in which the Republicans’ adherence to their political ideology has seemingly trumped any potential knowledge gained from real world experiences common to their constituents from which their socioeconomic privilege didn’t shelter them, it is hard not to point to a life-altering event (like a cancer diagnosis) and try to make it clear that this, this here, is what people are talking about when they talk about dying from lack of health insurance.

If you don’t have health insurance because you can’t afford it, you don’t go to your doctor because you have a headache until it’s much, much worse than a headache, if you go at all. If you don’t have health insurance because you can’t afford it, you don’t go to the ER if it’s probably just a sprain. If you don’t have health insurance because you can’t afford it, you don’t get your mammogram or your colonoscopy when it’s recommended, and you wait to make your follow-up appointment until you have the money (or new health insurance) and you don’t get that prescription refilled because you can’t afford to pay out of pocket for your pills.

But if you do have health insurance, and you’ve steadily had it for decades, then maybe it’s easier to think of health insurance a bit more abstractly, because you’ve never had to scramble for it. If you’ve never paid a sky-high deductible, then maybe you just never took the time to understand how insurance actually works. If you’ve never been insurance-insecure, then maybe opting for that insecurity looks like a freely-made choice instead of the least-unaffordable option.

Illness, though, is a great equalizer: It stalks us all, makes a mockery of the plans we’ve made for ourselves, reduces us to little more than organisms struggling to continue to endure. It also creates in many of us—or we’ve created for ourselves—a sense of solidarity with other such sufferers. It seems clear that what many people are hoping is not just that McCain cannot cast a vote for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s plan to repeal Obamacare and damn the consequences, but that his illness and the circumstances under which it came to light—circumstances which would not, under the bill, be afforded to nearly tens of million more Americans in the years to come—prompt more thought about the realities to which the rest of us might be condemned.

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