Nataline Sarkisyan [pictured], 17, died in December 2007 from liver failure, a complication from a bone marrow transplant she received to treat her leukemia. Her insurance provider, Cigna, had refused to pay for a transplant until hours before the girl’s death, calling the procedure experimental and outside the scope of coverage. “They took my daughter away from me,” her father said at a news conference.
The story moved Bryan Harris, when he read about it on MSNBC; he was furthered affected weeks later when he saw an opinion poll in which a majority of voters responded negatively to a “public option” as part of a healthcare system overhaul. Now, he’s translating his sympathy and outrage into action.
Nataline, of course, is not alone: healthcare horror-stories, from the insured and not, are ubiquitous, popping up in outlets ranging from the daily papers to Michael Moore’s Sicko. Recently, Harris has been working to create a forum where some of these stories can be collected—where all the Natalines can be heard: this week, he launched his project, The Health Insurance Victims Project: Remembering the Victims of Health Insurance Companies. A simple WordPress blog, it aims to be “a place where loved ones of the victims can post their stories,” Harris wrote in an email, “on the condition that the person must have died as a direct result of being denied care.” He also wants the site to function as hub for information on the public option.
So far, the site features only two stories: Nataline’s and that of Dawn Smith, an aspiring playwright in Atlanta and the current cause célèbre of MoveOn.org. (Ms. Smith requires treatment for a brain tumor that Cigna—them again!—won’t cover.) It also includes an entry about the recent Harvard study that found an estimated 45,000 Americans die every year because they don’t have health insurance.
Hopefully, Harris’ site will grow with stories, inspiring change through poignancy and sheer scale. But his example alone should serve as an inspiration for all of us. We should all be doing something, anything—even if it’s just starting a blog or calling our elected representatives—in an effort to affect the healthcare debate. Because, as Nataline’s story shows, the health insurance debacle in this country isn’t just a matter of untreated colds, or even bankrupted families. Real people are really dying.