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‘Tis the season to be thankful

By Dr. Robyn Liu

This week, Americans all over will gather around tables heavy-laden with holiday foods and count their blessings. Some, like newly-elected congressman Dr. Andy Harris (R-MD), will celebrate their tremendous accomplishments and look forward to new stages in their journeys. Others, like Randy Shepherd, will watch their children play and silently wonder if this Thanksgiving will be their last.

Dr. Harris and Mr. Shepherd both made news headlines last week. They have the common thread, familiar to tens of millions of Americans, of struggling with health care access.

Mr. Shepherd is a 36 year-old father who suffered rheumatic heart disease as a child. He lives in Arizona, where he is publicly insured through the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS). A pacemaker has added years to his life, and for this he is grateful. However, his disease continues to progress, and he will soon die unless he can obtain a heart transplant. Luckily, AHCCCS approved him for that very transplant last year. However, facing budget shortfalls, the Arizona legislature this week told Mr. Shepherd he wouldn’t be getting his new heart after all. To save $4.5 million out of a $1.5 billion deficit, Arizona is rescinding approval of 98 transplants.

Dr. Harris says he has never had to wait for health insurance in his entire working life. He openly expresed outrage when, during congressional orientation, he learned that his new taxpayer-funded health insurance came with a 28-day waiting period. Most working Americans are familiar with these waiting periods. They take advantage of COBRA to extend their previous insurance benefits, or they buy a short-term individual policy. These choices are apparently not good enough for Dr.Harris.  He wants his government coverage, even if he has to pay extra to buy into it early (in other words, a public option). His spokesperson says this is just another example of how inefficient a government-run healthcare program can be. (Actually, the average American health care employee waits almost 60 days for health insurance coverage. To them, a mere 28 days sounds pretty good.)  

This Thanksgiving season, Mr. Shepherd, facing death, is grateful to have witnessed his son’s early years. Dr. Harris, facing 28 days of coverage through COBRA instead of on our dime, is outraged.

Any one of us could easily find ourselves tomorrow in Mr. Shepherd’s unenviable position. Dr. Harris, on the other hand, has been given a place of privilege and power. He could choose to use that power to help all the Randy Shepherds obtain the health care they need and deserve; the very care that he demands for himself because he understands the urgency of being without. Instead, Dr. Harris belies his professional responsibilities, both as a physician and as a legislator, by vowing to repeal a law specifically designed to help alleviate this kind of suffering.

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