It’s a question that divides Americans, including those from my home town. But it’s possible to find common ground.
Is health care a right? The United States remains the only developed country in the world unable to come to agreement on an answer. Earlier this year, I was visiting Athens, Ohio, the town in the Appalachian foothills where I grew up. The battle over whether to repeal, replace, or repair the Affordable Care Act raged then, as it continues to rage now. So I began asking people whether they thought that health care was a right. The responses were always interesting.
A friend had put me in touch with a forty-seven-year-old woman I’ll call Maria Dutton. She lived with her husband, Joe, down a long gravel driveway that snaked into the woods off a rural road. “You may feel like you are in the movie ‘Deliverance,’ ” she said, but it wasn’t like that at all. They had a tidy, double-wide modular home with flowered wallpaper, family pictures on every surface, a vase of cut roses on a sideboard, and an absurdly friendly hound in the yard. Maria told me her story sitting at the kitchen table with Joe.
She had joined the Army out of high school and married her recruiter—Joe is eleven years older—but after a year she had to take a medical discharge. She had developed severe fatigue, double vision, joint and neck pains, and muscle weakness. At first, doctors thought that she had multiple sclerosis. When that was ruled out, they were at a loss. After Joe left the military, he found steady, secure work as an electrical technician at an industrial plant nearby. Maria did secretarial and office-manager jobs and had a daughter. But her condition worsened, and soon she became too ill to work.
“I didn’t even have enough energy to fry a pound of hamburger,” she said. “I’d have to fry half of it and then sit down, rest, and get up and fry the rest. I didn’t have enough energy to vacuum one room of the house.” Eventually, she was diagnosed with chronic-fatigue syndrome and depression. She became addicted to the opioids prescribed for her joint pains and was started on methadone. Her liver began to fail. In 2014, she was sent two hundred miles away to the Cleveland Clinic for a liver-transplant evaluation. There, after more than two decades of Maria’s deteriorating health, doctors figured out what the problem was: sarcoidosis, an inflammatory condition that produces hardened nodules in organs throughout the body. The doctors gave her immunosuppressive medication, and the nodules shrank away. Within a year, she had weaned herself off the methadone.
“It was miraculous,” she said. In middle age, with her daughter grown up and in the Army Reserves herself, Maria got her life back and returned to school. All along, she’d had coverage through her husband’s work. “They have amazing insurance,” she said. “I think one year the insurance paid out two hundred thousand dollars. But we paid out, too.”
This was an understatement. Between a six-thousand-dollar deductible and hefty co-pays and premiums, the Duttons’ annual costs reached fifteen thousand dollars. They were barely getting by. Then one day in 2001 Joe blacked out, for no apparent reason, at a Girl Scout meeting for their daughter and fell down two flights of stairs, resulting in a severe concussion. It put him out of work for six months. Given the health-care costs and his loss of income, the couple ran out of money.
“We had to file for bankruptcy,” Joe said. He told me this reluctantly. It took them more than five years to dig out of the hole. He considered the bankruptcy “pretty shameful,” he said, and had told almost no one about it, not even his family. (This was why they didn’t want me to use their names.) He saw it as a personal failure—not the government’s. In fact, the whole idea that government would get involved in the financing of health care bothered him. One person’s right to health care becomes another person’s burden to pay for it, he said. Taking other people’s money had to be justified, and he didn’t see how it could be in cases like this.
“Everybody has a right to access health care,” he allowed, “but they should be contributing to the cost.” He pointed out that anyone could walk into a hospital with an emergency condition, get treated, and be billed afterward. “Yes, they may have collectors coming after them,” he said. “But I believe everybody should contribute for the treatment they receive.”