Thursday, November 5, 2009

Virginia Residents Making Health Care Personal on Capitol Hill

Yesterday, I tagged along with the Virginia Organizing Project (VOP) and residents from all over Virginia as they visited Capitol Hill to share their personal health care stories with their Senators and Representatives. As Kevin Simowitz, a VOP organizer, said to the group before their scheduled meetings:
"They [Congress] get lobbied all the time, right? Our estimates show that the insurance lobby spends about $641,000-a-day lobbying Congress. Now, we can pass a plate, but we're probably not gonna come up with that much money. The thing that we can do is you all can bring your personal stories about why we're here and why we need a public health insurance option as part of the bill. And if you're speaking out of your own experiences, speaking in non-partisan language, and speaking about what needs to happen... we're gonna walk out of this meeting a little bit further along the health care road than where we are."
We will have a video report for you on Monday, but for today I will share with you what these meetings were like and what was discussed.

The day started off at Senator Mark Warner's office where the group of some 20 people met with Luke Albee, Sen. Warner's Cheif of Staff (CoS). The group began the conversation by asking Mr. Albee for a legislative update on the health care fight from his perspective. "We're further along in health care than we've been in my life." We hear this all the time, but to this 25-year-old, that statement continues to move me. This fight is so much older than I am and we are so close to taking a huge step forward for our nation. "I think at the end of the day we're gonna get there," Mr. Albee added. "You guys have helped us a lot, because we are hearing from folks." He went on to say that during the stimulus fight they were only hearing from the other side, that it felt like the calls were 99 to 1 against and it hurt, but on health care both sides have been vocal.

The group then took some time to share personal stories about our health care system with the CoS. They started with Matt Masterson. Matt is a father of 3. He has Rheumatoid arthritis, his wife suffers from depression and had a near-fatal, enlarged gall bladder, and one of his children was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at age 2. He had great insurance, but struggled to cover his son who has a preexisting condition. Matt mostly struggled with the costs though. Even with decent insurance, the copays for medication for his family became too much to take, eating $1,500-a-month at points. Then Matt lost his job for taking too much sick time. The costs became crippling to his family. His family lost their home and car. He explained all this to Mr. Albee, then began to tear up as he said, "I'm not doing this for me, I'm doing it for my kids... I want them not to have to go through what I went through... I got drove into poverty."

They continued sharing stories with Mr. Albee. Linda Pallette told about her battle with breast cancer. She had no insurance when this happened. She calls herself "lucky" that she did not own a home at the time, if she had, she would not have qualified for state hospitalization. It has now been 10 years since her successful fight with breast cancer, "I can never repay these 10 years... that's why I'm doing this... I'm okay. This is not about me." She then shared another story. This was of her neighbor's dear friend, who Linda only knew as Mary. Mary, when facing illness, literally chose to die rather than leave her family in medical debt.

Mr. Albee urged the group to continue knocking on doors, getting people to write letters and call the Senator's Office. The meeting ended with a group photo and an assurance from Mr. Albee that he would relate these stories and the others to Sen. Warner as thoroughly as possible.

Next on the list was Senator Jim Webb. The group met with Courtney Weaver, a Legislative Correspondent from Sen. Webb's office. The meeting was very similar to the previous one, a legislative update from Ms. Weaver, followed by personal stories, a request that she relate the stories to the Senator, and, of course, a photo with the group. And then it was off to the Representatives, Glenn Nye, Rob Wittman, and Eric Cantor to be exact. I tagged along with the group visiting Rep. Nye, who has said of the public option:
"I will consider the notion of a public option," Nye said, "... if it can be set up in such a way that it does not crowd out the private insurance market. That reduces choice, not increases it."
The group chose Rep. Nye because of this shaky support of the public option. The VOP believe this is a Representative that they can move. While Rep. Nye's office hears from insurance lobbyists, and opponents to reform, they are also hearing personal stories of struggle from members of his district. And to the Senators' and Representatives' credit, they are making time for their office to hear these stories. This plan, focusing on personal stories, is how health care reform advocates are fighting to cross the finish line.

Check back at Sum of Change on Monday for our video coverage of the day's events
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