Friday, June 17, 2011

Calling Out A Legislator

Open letter to Rep. Kathleen Bernier in response to her remarks on Assembly Floor (June 15)

Rep. Kathleen Bernier
68th Assembly District
Rep. Bernier,
I joined the Assembly budget debate last night (through Wisconsin Eye) as you were arguing your case with colleagues regarding changes to BadgerCare. In that testimony, you used your own experience of being a young person at college, paying for insurance through the university system, and having to struggle with the out-of-pocket costs related to back surgery.  Your story was used as an example of having struggled, and having overcome the challenges of obtaining medical care.
Having spent 20+ years working with low-income individuals and households in both urban and rural communities in Wisconsin, I feel compelled to respond to your comments. As real as your struggle was in your life, the circumstances of people facing cutoff from BadgerCare are not equivalent. And it concerns me that you are comparing your personal struggle with their circumstances and using that comparison as a justification for your position on BadgerCare funding.
You were a young woman in difficult circumstances, but with prospects. As a University student, you were already a high school graduate working toward a four-year degree. While the cost of your University-based insurance was daunting, I am sure, it was available to you. By your own testimony, you paid $50 a month for the out-of-pocket expenses. In recent years, you have been a public official, who I am assuming was able to receive health insurance through the county government in which you served. My guess is that you have not gone for any significant period of time in your adult life without health insurance coverage.
In contrast, my experience with adults eligible for BadgerCare, and especially those who have benefited briefly from the expansion of BadgerCare,  is that they are chronically low-income with few real prospects for higher wages in the future. Many have been chronically uninsured, and have chronic medical issues that have been left untreated for long periods of time.  In many, perhaps most cases, these untreated medical conditions interfere with work and life.
You had back surgery. Often such surgery is the result of conditions that cannot be resolved otherwise and that cause significant pain to the patient. Imagine if you had not been able to get that surgery? What if you had lived for years and years with the condition that was treated surgically?  How would living with chronic pain have impacted your life? 
Every person I have ever worked with who became eligible for BadgerCare, including the expansion program, had no other options. They were not candidates for insurance in the individual market because they couldn’t afford it, and the coverage available to them was inadequate. People who have been untreated for long periods of time often end up sicker, more expensive to treat, needing more medications…the cost of individual insurance for such people is prohibitively expensive if available at all.  And for EVERY person I worked with who had chronic untreated illnesses and conditions, the negative impact on their ability to work consistently had been an issue for years and years. Illness and pain had caused lost jobs, periods of unpaid unemployment, evictions, credit problems, problems for their children and on and on.  The relationship between lack of insurance, and therefore medical care, and employment, family and financial problems cannot be disentangled.
There is no reasonable alternative for the people being dumped back into a life without medical insurance or care.
My wish is that legislators like you, who want to solve fiscal problems, would actually get out there and look closely at the reality of human lives before making decisions about policy.  What I sensed in your remarks was a prejudicial assumption about the poor and low income working families. I heard your moral judgment at work when you noted that you wanted everyone to get out there and do what you had to do.  I tell you, people would take advantage of what was available to you if it was available to them. But in my long experience – those options are not available.
You can stick by your vote, but please do so honestly.  People will go without medical care because of your decision – they will suffer and they will potentially die.  We have an amazing medical care system in Wisconsin – but you and your colleagues have made the decision that certain people can and will be shut out of that system.  At least show these human beings the respect of being honest about what you are doing to them.
I would welcome the opportunity to discuss this matter further.
Wendy Cooper, MSSW
M.Div candidate (2012), Chicago Theological Seminary

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