Family illness gives aide a personal stake in health debate

By Christopher Wills

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – As a press aide to the governor, Annie Thompson helped promote a plan to improve health care access, but didn’t think much about the realities of facing serious illness without insurance.

Now she can think of little else.

In early May, Thompson’s uninsured mother finally agreed to see a doctor for her abdominal pain. The doctors found a softball-sized mass.

Her mother, Pat, underwent surgery for colon cancer and spent about two weeks in the hospital, piling up nearly $100,000 in debt. After a delay over money, she’s starting chemotherapy, with most of the cost covered by a state program she can join only because one of her daughters hasn’t yet turned 19.

“I realized what a struggle it is when you don’t have health insurance. When she was in the hospital, she was turning down pain medications because she knew that every little pill, every little IV bag was going to up the tab,” said Annie Thompson, 25. “It just hit me all of a sudden: It’s a real issue. It’s not just political games.”

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    The question of what Illinois should do about health care access has helped paralyze the state Capitol. Gov. Rod Blagojevich wants a major new program to guarantee everyone in the state has access to health insurance, but many lawmakers are skeptical about the program’s cost and effectiveness.

    Officials debate the issue in sweeping terms: Millions of people, billions of dollars, the proper role of government. Pat Thompson’s illness offers a reminder that the debate ultimately affects individuals – and that some of those individuals aren’t far removed from the Capitol.

    Under Blagojevich’s plan, the state’s 1.4 million uninsured adults could enroll in government health services, get help paying for private coverage or buy insurance under a new program the state would require insurers to join.

    Blagojevich, in an interview with The Associated Press, used Pat’s situation to illustrate the need for his proposal. A hardworking mother of four shouldn’t face a life-threatening illness and huge medical bills because she chose to put college expenses for her children ahead of insurance, he said.

    “How can that happen in America in the 21st century?” Blagojevich asked.

    Of course, opponents of his plan can find individuals to illustrate their points, too. They could point to the struggling business owner who would be taxed to pay for it, or the small pharmacies and nursing homes already waiting months to be paid for providing care under the state’s current health plans.

    Pat Thompson, a self-employed daycare provider in Springfield, said she dropped her health insurance three or four years ago when her premiums tripled to about $300 a month.

    “I took the chance and lost,” said Pat, who is in her 50s but wouldn’t give an exact age.

    While her health is still in question, her financial problems are easing a bit. Her hospital and anesthesiologist agreed to forgive her debt, leaving her surgeon’s bill as the big cost. Her daughter, familiar with health care programs, has arranged for the state’s FamilyCare service to pay for the chemotherapy.

    “I wouldn’t have known who to call. Most people don’t,” Pat said.

    Annie Thompson said she’s relieved that she could help her mother arrange chemotherapy. But she can’t forget that the lack of insurance means her mother went undiagnosed for so long.

    “If she had been able to go for routine medical procedures, like colonoscopies, then they would have caught it before it was the size of a softball in her stomach,” she said.

    “I feel like beating my head against the wall.”