3:51 PM Eastern - Thursday, March 24, 2011

Member voices: A death that might have been prevented with health insurance #the-healthcare-law

Stories from the States: SEIU members share how the Affordable Care Act gives them greater personal freedom, greater control of their own healthcare.

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This is the story of Billy - what was and what could have been.

Billy was a man with a gentle soul and a loving heart but that heart didn't always beat so well. My sister Kitty describes him as a man who was loving and generous to his family, his friends and those in need.

Billy was 39 years old when he suffered his first cardiac arrest (CA). He happened to be in the triage department of an emergency room when the CA happened and the ER staff was able to bring him back.

Billy was diagnosed with having Torsades de Pointe, a sudden death type of cardiac arrhythmia. Although there is no cure for this type of arrhythmia, it is recommended that the patient be put on beta blockers and have an implanted Automatic Internal Cardiac Defibrillator (AICD) ready to fire at any time. Billy was discharged from the hospital with an AICD.

Billy had health insurance through his job so caring for his heart and his defibrillator wasn't a big deal. Through the years, Billy went through his small pension of $25,000 dollars to pay the costs his health insurance company didn't cover. He was okay with that.

In April of 2003, the company Billy worked for closed. He not only lost his job but he lost his health insurance. His hope was to find another job that offered health insurance as a benefit but that job was nowhere to be found so he took a job as a pizza delivery driver. He was thankful for the work.

Billy called every health insurance company in Pennsylvania trying to find a private plan but the answer was always the same - "denied" due to his pre-existing heart condition.

On December 14, 2007, Billy was closing up the shop when he collapsed on to the floor. He was rushed by ambulance to a local hospital. The next morning, a cardiologist came into his room, read his defibrillator and said he would be back. When he came back that afternoon, he stood at the foot of Billy's bed and said, "Mr. Koehler you are a very lucky man. Your defibrillator battery is so low I am surprised it fired this time. It needs to be replaced." He went on to say the replacement would be done as an outpatient operation and that he would see him at his office in three months.

Billy asked, "if I don't have health insurance by then will I have to pay up front?" The doctor said yes, he would have to bring thousands of dollars with you or you will not be seen.

Billy said, with despair in his voice, "I don't know what to do because I don't have thousands of dollars nor does my family."

The doctor moved from the foot of the bed and stood at the side of the bed, opposite of where my sister and I sat and said, "Mr. Koehler, do you put oil in your car?"

Billy didn't answer. The doctor said, "Mr. Koehler, I asked you a question. Do you put oil in your car?"

Billy, with humiliation all over his face said, "of course I put oil in my car."

The doctor then asked, "Do you buy the best oil money can buy so your car runs smoother and last longer? Because that is what you have to do for your heart."

Billy said, "A can of oil costs $8.50, compared to a defibrillator that costs $10,000 dollars and that doesn't include the surgery. I will never have that kind of money."

The doctor pointed his finger at Billy and said, "Get your priorities straightened out and you will come up with that money." With those words, the doctor left the room and Billy was discharged from the hospital the next day without a defibrillator ready to fire at any time.

As a family, we worked tirelessly to find Billy a private health insurance plan but we were denied over and over. We prayed for peace of mind but we worried all the time that we would get a call telling us of Billy's death.

That call came on March 7, 2009. Billy was 57 years old.

Billy left work, after his shift was done, at 5:10 p.m. He got in his car and drove two blocks, came to a stop sign, he put his car in park and slumped over his steering wheel.

Billy's life mattered to his family, his friends, and his community and, that day, his life mattered to compassionate strangers who desperately tried to give him back his life. So why didn't his life matter to the ones that could have saved his life on that December 14 visit?

The answer is only one word and that word is found throughout his chart. UNINSURED. That December, Billy's worth as a human being was diminished because he was uninsured and poor.

When President Obama signed into law the Affordable Care Act, I was elated and yet felt some sadness. I thought if only our new law was in place, Billy would have never been asked the question "do you put oil in your car" because he would've been treated with dignity, the same dignity afforded another man whose heart didn't always beat so good.

That man's name is Dick Cheney. Billy, like Dick, would have had a health insurance card in his pocket too. If the new law was in place on December 14, 2007, Billy would have been discharged from that hospital with a new AICD ready to fire at any time.

On a purely selfish note, if our new law had been in place when Billy was in trouble, today I wouldn't have to close my eyes to gaze into his eyes one more time.

Today I stand with you celebrating the fact that the Affordable Care Act is the law of our land and I ask you to stand with me if we would have to fight to keep it alive, because if it dies none of us are safe from Billy's tragedy becoming our tragedy. None of us will be safe from having our story told by one of our surviving siblings.

Find out how the healthcare law is helping you and your family at SEIU's online healthcare law hub: http://www.seiu.org/the-healthcare-law


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