I was working two part-time jobs that barely kept me in my apartment. How could I afford to treat a chronic illness? The doctor at the clinic prescribed me a mid-cost insulin—not the best treatment, he said, but the best in my price range. It was about $55 a bottle, and would last roughly a month; a box of syringes cost another $25. I had to buy a blood-sugar testing machine (a one-time expense), plus a supply of testing strips (a chronic expense), plus the lancets used to prick your finger, plus alcohol swabs to keep me from catching an infection. I have to resupply these things regularly, for the rest of my life. Diabetes isn't cheap.
Yet for all its cost, the insulin treatment was almost as bad as the untreated disease. My blood sugar was constantly too low—one of the worst feelings I've experienced in my short life, and I had it all the time. I couldn't think, I was sore, I was feverish and sweaty, and sometimes my knees gave out. Once I fainted; other times, I just felt on the brink of doing so. It was a horrible few months, and I cringe to think about it now. If circumstance forced me back on that treatment plan, I might kill myself instead.
Fortunately, that decision remains a hypothetical. The L Magazine put me on its health insurance plan, allowing me to afford a two-insulin treatment much better suited to me and the demands of my work and life. With co-pays these insulins cost me $40; without, they would together cost $284, far more than I could afford monthly. Diabetes is still expensive, still a burden financially and emotionally and in terms of my health, but at least I can sort of manage it.
Of course, as a diabetic, the health insurance industry wants nothing to do with me. I'm sick, and I'm never getting better, which means it's impossible to turn a profit from me. In some states, health insurance companies won't cover people with diabetes. But in New York state, there is something called a "diabetic mandate," which requires health insurance companies to cover those with diabetes. Again, luck has saved me.
But plenty of people in my situation aren't so lucky. They don't have health insurance, or they live in states without such a mandate. I'm not happy to be so lucky; I'm furious that others in America, people the same as me, are struggling to afford the chance at a basic quality of life others take for granted—and through no fault of their own. Whatsoever you do to the least of the diabetics, that you do unto me.
Opponents of meaningful healthcare reform who frame it in terms of theory fail to understand how for so many of us, healthcare is personal, a literal matter of life and death—our own lives and deaths, or those of the people we care about most. Underlying philosophical precepts have no bearing on clear moral choices. You don't let someone die to prove the point you were trying to make.
That said, I'm also inclined to agree that compelling Americans to buy health insurance seems unconstitutional. I also understand that without such a mandate, other facets of Obamacare—like forbidding health insurance companies from refusing to cover those suffering from "pre-exisiting conditions"—would be untenable, probably driving health insurance companies to raise their rates to levels even more unreasonable than they already are.
The problem in America isn't that millions of us lack health insurance. It's that any of us have health insurance at all. Health insurance itself is the problem—the for-profit casino-modeled system that lets people go bankrupt, to live sickly, and to die in order to maximize gain for shareholders and executives. Meaningful reform won't mean giving more people more health insurance. It'll mean giving everyone access to health care—especially the people who need it most.
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart