Life Without Health Insurance
On the afternoon of the election, I sat counting ceiling tiles at my local Planned Parenthood clinic.
“Have you ever been to a Planned Parenthood clinic before?” the receptionist asked me when I approached the front desk.
“Please fill out these forms. All your information will be kept confidential.”
I found a seat in the back corner of the waiting area and slowly raised my eyes to look around the crowded room. To my right, there was a young girl — maybe 15 or 16 years old — with her arms crossed rigidly over her chest. She was wearing fishnet stockings, a transparent black tank top, and dark eyeliner painted thickly along the lids under her eyes. I wondered why she was here. She looked too young for an annual pap smear.
I looked back down at the forms on my clipboard:
Name: Chelsea Roff
To my right, I heard the door open again and in walked another woman — probably 35 — wearing lululemon pants and a long, flowy shirt that easily could have served as a dress. Her hair was dark and curly, her skin a sun-kissed bronze. She approached the reception desk timidly, her eyes darting rapidly around the room.
“I’m not an American citizen,” she said to the receptionist. Her accent sounded British… maybe South African. “Will they still see me?”
“Yes, of course, honey. Do you have an appointment?
“Fill out these forms. We’ll get you in.”
I looked back down at the clipboard in my lap, subconsciously breathing a sigh of relief for the woman at the desk. What was she here for? Emergency contraception? Abortion? STD test? Was she pregnant? I wondered if she had a national health care system in her country of origin, and thought about how frightening it would be to have a medical emergency happen and be so far from home.
Finishing my paperwork, I re-approached the reception desk, getting in line behind a mother-daughter couple and a young man. To my left I saw a small framed sign on the wall adjacent to me:
THE TRUTH ABOUT TEEN PRIVACY
We encourage teens to discuss their health care concerns with their parents or other adults, but you can give us your own permission for the following:
- Birth Control
- Pregnancy test
- Abortion services
- Sexually transmitted infection testing and treatment
You can also talk to us about the following and be sure they will remain private:
- Alcohol, cigarettes, tobacco, or drugs
- Personal, school, or family issues
- Sex and sexuality issues
I thought about my younger sister, about the handful of times I’d walked her into a clinic like this. I’d forgotten what that was like… being underage and in the foster care system, Planned Parenthood the only place you knew to go.
Just then, my phone buzzed in my purse. I pulled it out, seeing a new text message from an unknown number:
“Get out + vote! Make sure your voice is heard + vote counted. Follow YogaVotes on Facebook +Twitter for election day updates.”
I smiled at the irony. Somehow I managed to schedule my first appointment at a Planned Parenthood clinic on the day of our national election — a day that, without doubt, would decide the fate of whether these clinics would continue to exist at all. I thought about what was at stake… access to basic STD testing, women’s health services for those without health insurance, a safe place for teens to receive medical care and advice without the risk of getting kicked out by their parents. I wondered where I would go if this clinic wasn’t here. I wondered how many women I knew would say that Planned Parenthood had saved their lives.
I haven’t had medical insurance since I was seventeen. In fact, the last time I had coverage, I was on Medicaid — a federally-funded program that provides free or low-cost health coverage to more than 50 million children and families. Because of a “pre-existing condition” I experienced in my teens, I’ve been rejected by insurance companies each and every time I’ve applied for coverage as an adult. Now, I’m in the long, arduous process of trying to attain coverage under California’s Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan (PCIP), a program which — thanks to Obamacare — will offer health coverage to medically-uninsurable individuals until the legislation goes into full effect in January 2014 (I’ll be writing more about PCIP in a forthcoming article).
My experience at Planned Parenthood that day prompted to think more deeply about healthcare in the United States — and more specifically, about how the other 50+ million Americans who are uninsured in the United States fare when health issues arise.
Who are these 50 million Americans — are they young, old, rich, poor, educated, too stupid or lazy (as many conservatives often imply) to purchase health insurance?
Where does an uninsured woman go when her Planned Parenthood doctor finds a lump in her breast? What about uninsured children — how many are there, and what do parents do when their gets a 106 degree fever in the middle of the night and they can’t afford an ER visit? Is healthcare a basic human right, or a privilege reserved for the wealthy?
While I have many friends and colleagues who shun politics; for me, the issues at stake in the 2012 election were far too personally impactful to turn away. From the moment I heard Mitt Romney unequivocally declare that, “on my first day if elected President of the United States, I will act to repeal Obamacare,” I knew just how high the stakes were. Had Obama not been re-elected, my hope for finally having health insurance would have been squashed. The one clinic that I — and so many women I know — depend on would likely have lost federal funding. Voting was not merely a symbolic act of civic engagement… it was a public statement of what I want andneed from my government: the institutional support necessary to preserve life.
On Friday, I put out a call to my Facebook friends:
“If you are uninsured, have been for at least 6 mos, and would be willing to participate in a brief (anonymous) interview, please email me.”
I was absolutely astounded at the volume (and diversity) of responses I received. In just 24 hours, I had over 50 messages in my inbox — emails that contained heartbreaking, thought-provoking, and eye-opening stories about how people across America are living without health insurance. Some had boycotted insurance industry and firmly believed that they were better off for it — others had been trying to attain affordable care for over a decade. I realized that I would never be able to unpack all the issues contained in those emails in a single article — and so began the series I’m starting today, Life Without Health Insurance.
The Life Without Health Insurance Series will examine the questions listed above, as well as a host of other issues related to healthcare around the world. Here is a tentative, non-ordered list of the articles I envision for this series:
1. Is Access to Affordable Healthcare a Human Right?
2. Taking Care of Your Vagina without Health Insurance
3. Raising a Sick Child without Health Insurance
4. So You Have a Pre-Existing Condition…
5. When Emergencies Happen: Where to Go When You’re Uninsured
6. Do Healthy People Really Need Insurance?
7. Preventative Care in the Health Insurance Industry
8. Obamacare: What the Mandate Means for You
9. How the Affordable Care Act Will Impact the Economy
10. Beyond America: Models of Healthcare Around the World
I look forward to beginning this discussion with you, and I hope it can be a catalyst for all of us — both those with and without insurance — to have a more meaningful dialogue about what we want from our government when it comes to healthcare. If there are any issues related to healthcare you’re particularly interested in learning (or talking) about, please share them in the comments section below.
I am still seeking stories of people living without health insurance in the United States, so if you would like to participate in a brief email interview please send me a message at chelsea [at] intent.com. I will send you back a list of questions, and any answers you give will remain anonymous should I choose to use them in the series.
Chelsea Roff is Managing Editor for Intent Blog. She is a speaker, survivor, and advocate writing about women’s health, humanitarian issues, and the intersection of science and yoga. Check out Chelsea’s website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
By Chelsea Roff