Life Shouldn't Be a "Pre-existing Condition"

Jan 20, 2011Tim Price

Medical crises often arise when we least expect them. The Affordable Care Act allows us to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

When I woke up on February 20th, 2008, I had no way of knowing that the day’s events would change my life forever. I was midway through my junior year of college, a political science major swept up in the thrill of a historic presidential election and eager to get to class and discuss the latest campaign developments. After having breakfast and checking a few of my favorite blogs, I gathered my books and headed out into a cold but sunny winter morning.

The walk from the front door of my house to the bus stop wasn’t a long one, but it was made treacherous by the need to cross a busy and poorly marked service road. I stood at the corner and waited for the walk sign to change, unwilling to take any chances. Unfortunately, the driver of the large white van that ran me down wasn’t so conscientious. Halfway through the crosswalk I saw him blow the light and swerve toward me. I knew I couldn’t get out of the way in time, so I waved my arms to signal for him to stop. He didn’t.

I’ll spare you the gory details of what came next, but suffice to say I never made it to class. Broken, bruised, and burned, I spent weeks in the hospital, undergoing multiple surgeries to mend injuries that probably would have killed an older man outright. ("Do you have any medical conditions we should know about?" a doctor asked me through the haze of morphine. "You mean aside from being run over?" I groaned.) I was grateful to be alive, but I knew I had a long recovery ahead of me -- one that would be measured in years rather than months -- and I knew it was going to cost me. Suddenly, the health care debate playing out on TV wasn’t so abstract. If I was a “young invincible,” I’d just been struck by a Kryptonite meteor.

As a full-time college student, I was fortunate enough to be covered under my mother’s employer-provided health insurance at the time of the accident. But that did little to set my mind at ease about the future. The economy collapsed a few months into my recovery, and even with my graduation plans delayed, I knew I would soon age out of my mother’s group plan and be thrust into the worst job market in 80 years. Equally frightening was the possibility that I’d one day have to purchase insurance on my own and wind up being denied coverage due to my injuries. I knew that the definition of “pre-existing condition” tends to vary according to the insurer's whims, but I was pretty sure that having more titanium rods and bolts inside me than the Six Million Dollar Man would not work in my favor.

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Of course, the doctors and paramedics who saved my life would have done so even if I wasn’t insured, because (government intervention alert!) the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act requires it. It also would have left me footing a six-figure bill. I'd either have wound up even more broke than the typical college student or the hospital would have had to absorb most of the cost, which it would then pass on to everyone else. And all that doesn’t even begin to address how I would have obtained long-term treatment, like physical rehabilitation, additional surgeries, or pain medication. In short, unless we want to live in a society where EMTs find people bleeding in the street and stop to check their insurance cards, we have to accept that increasing access to health insurance leaves us all better off and is a legitimate use of Congress’s commerce powers.

The Affordable Care Act has many flaws, but when it passed, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief for myself and countless others in my position. I knew I’d be able to keep my mother’s insurance for several more years, giving me time to heal and to find a job with decent benefits. I also knew I’d no longer have to worry about an insurer looking at my medical history and finding some flimsy pretense to deny me coverage or rescind it without warning. That’s why the Republican Party’s current push to repeal the law (with the help of three Democrats) without offering any real alternative is so infuriating. Modern conservative ideology seems to treat lack of insurance as either a moral failing or an unavoidable byproduct of economic liberty. Either way, the repealers claim there’s nothing the government can or should do to help.

This callous disregard is understandable, if not excusable. The representatives leading the charge against “Obamacare” are generally affluent enough to afford gold-plated coverage even if it weren’t provided at the taxpayers’ expense. Having their savings wiped out by a hospital bill after a freak accident or serious illness just doesn't keep them up at night. But what about their constituents? According to a new report from the Department of Health and Human Services, as many as 129 million Americans under age 65 have pre-existing conditions. This means, as Tim Noah puts it, that "[u]p to half of all Americans are stuck in their current jobs because if they leave they will likely find it very, very difficult to buy affordable health insurance." The newly empowered GOP doesn’t have to lift a finger to address this; Democrats have already done the hard part. All Republicans need to do is stop trying to turn back the clock and acknowledge a simple fact: No matter how young and healthy we are, no matter how hard we work and how much we save, we can never be certain what's around the next corner.

Tim Price is a Junior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

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