April 5, 2010 was a blessed day for me.
That was the day Duke won the national championship, but, trust me, that’s not it. No, that was the day I was diagnosed with cancer.
Yes. On that Monday afternoon, I stopped dead in my tracks at my job that fully insures me and encourages its employees to take proactive steps toward better health, and said to myself, “I am tired of feeling tired all the time.” Without asking anyone’s permission, I drove to my family doctor, who worked me in within an hour. He felt the lump near my collarbone, and within an hour I had a CT scan. By the end of the afternoon, I had a biopsy and a diagnosis.
Hodgkins Lymphoma. Stage 3b. Blessed, indeed.
Up to this point, other than a routine copay at the family doctor, no one had said a word about cost, whether I could afford treatment or whether my insurance would pay. All that mattered was diagnosis and treatment. When our nation’s health care system gets it right, it really gets it right.
Which leads me to ask: What if I were one of our nation’s 45 million without insurance? At no point did my symptoms keep me from trudging into work day after day, which, had my livelihood depended on it, I surely would have kept on doing … until the tumors overwhelmed me and I either died or became an expensive charity case all of you would have indirectly helped pay for.
We as a society have to be better than this.
In New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties alone, the state’s Institute of Medicine estimates about 48,000 adults are without health insurance. These are generally hardworking people who hold jobs, pay taxes and want the best for their children.
A depressingly high number have no doctor and little if any access to any medical care, and almost every one of them is a tumor away from either bankruptcy or charity hardship at the local hospital.
In too many cases, the most meaningful result is life-limiting illness or death.
There are some local efforts in place to address this.
Cape Fear HealthNet has been working to take what we call our safety net – free clinics, federally funded clinics, health department and hospital clinics – and weave them into a collaborative system that can better serve the low-income uninsured.
HealthNet “navigators” assist in finding the limited medical appointments available and in plugging into the other social services, such as food stamps, prescription assistance or emergency shelter services, available in the community. A nurse advocate works with those with chronic disease, teaching them how to care for themselves rather than making repeated trips to the emergency room.
HealthNet has funded additional health providers, typically Family Nurse Practitioners, at the free clinics, as well as programs that help the chronically ill apply for free long-term medication assistance.
But HealthNet’s finest moment to date was July 1, the day Dr. Janelle Rhyne, one of the state’s most respected internal medicine and infectious disease physicians, began as medical director. Under Rhyne’s leadership, HealthNet will open an “episodic care” clinic based at Tileston Health Clinic, St. Mary Church’s new medical clinic, and Wilmington Health Access for Teens. The clinic will reach those low-income uninsured patients with fevers, infections and nagging illnesses that need to be treated before they become something worse. Think of it as urgent care for the uninsured.
With Rhyne on board, HealthNet will also begin asking the community’s private physicians to volunteer to take on a limited number of patients, helping to reduce the overwhelming unmet need. Through these types of efforts, HealthNet and its partners can chip away at this issue and provide the uninsured with the human dignity of medical treatment when they are sick.
HealthNet is entirely grant-funded, but that can’t last forever. We will need support from our businesses, our government, and private donors who recognize our community is better off when more of us stay healthy and productive.
I say “we” because I am chairman of Cape Fear HealthNet’s board, and have been since its inception four years ago. Until April 5, the issue of access to health care was important to me, but only as a policy matter that affected someone else. Today it’s personal.
I call my diagnosis a blessing, but it shouldn’t be. It should be a right. Not as an entitlement, but as a byproduct of citizenship of the greatest nation on earth.
This isn’t about universal health care, single-payer systems or any of the buzzwords driving today’s health care debate. This is about being able to go to a doctor when you’re sick.
Don’t count on health care reform to solve this. The programs that cover the uninsured don’t start until 2014 and even then, if we don’t have enough doctors in primary care, it won’t really matter.
I am lucky, but it shouldn’t have come down to that. If you’re sick and it’s treatable, you should have a chance to get well.
We are better than this.
Former StarNews reporter Scott Whisnant works in government relations for New Hanover Regional Medical Center and chairs Cape Fear HealthNet. He reports his prognosis for full recovery is excellent and thanks everyone who has been so supportive of him and his family.