Montana Voices: What really matters in the health-care debate

Three good reasons, among many millions, why all citizens should have access to good health care. (Photo courtesy Mary Sheehy Moe)

“You guys, I just left the doctor’s office and I’m freaking out.”

Thus began my daughter Molly’s announcement to my husband and me last September that the baby she had long wanted and expected in February would in fact be three babies.

I’m a little slow processing things. As the daughter and wife of a twin, my immediate reaction was, “How wonderful. These children will always have a special bond, always be tied together in a special way.” It didn’t occur to me until later that this was a game-changer.

For Molly, the game changed immediately. The visits to the doctor, the number of doctors, and the kinds of tests steadily multiplied. Within six weeks she was hospitalized. For 34 days she lay in a hospital bed, strapped to machines monitoring each baby. One monitor showed that James, the third and tiniest of the triplets, had a compromised umbilical cord, restricting his growth. The young parents were told he wouldn’t make it full-term, and the cord could shut down completely at any time.

That presented the first of many difficult choices. They could “let James pass” when the cord shut down or they could “go in for all three” with an emergency C-section.

But while the doctors had been watching the monitor for vital signs and growth, Molly and her husband, Derek, had been seeing something else: Sweet Baby James was a fighter. No way were they going to let him go. So they waited and watched and worried. On Dec. 8, the doctors told them that now Oliver’s cord, too, seemed compromised. It was time to intervene. The next day Natalie, Oliver and James were delivered in that order, each within a minute of the other.

The game changed yet again. Now Molly was out of the hospital, but all three babies remained in it—specifically, in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Every day for the next 126 days, Molly and Derek juggled the demands of work, home and visits to the NICU. Every day there was something to be scared to death about: the hole in James’ heart, Oliver’s large ventricles, this brain scan, that infection, surgery after surgery.

As I watched this young couple soldier on, I thanked God for the one thing they didn’t have to fear. By some miracle, their children were born during this sliver of time and space where they had access to all the specialized healthcare they needed. Just a few years earlier—or later—and they may not have had the options they have had.

Because of a minor pre-existing condition, until the Affordable Care Act Molly couldn’t get insurance, so who knows what prenatal care she would have received? But putting that aside, it would have been the rare insurance plan that would cover these costs. Three teams totaling 28 medical professionals staffed the OR the day the triplets were delivered. Tally up 10 weeks in the NICU for Natalie, 12 for Oliver, and 18 for James. A surgery for this one and several for that one. And all those tests that continue to this day—tests that this same family seven years ago wouldn’t even have been able to consider because the additional expense would bounce that insurance cap right off the chart.

It’s been hard enough to make these medical decisions. Each procedure has been intrusive, subject to a foul-up, prone to infection. It’s hard, too, to contemplate what comes next if the tests, which continue to this day, show something else to worry about. But this little family is insured. They have the comfort, the confidence, of knowing that affordability is not an obstacle to doing what they conclude must be done. Their situation would be so different without it. It would crush them. Crush them.

What kind of country are we, what kind of people are we, to consider returning to a reality where millions of people no less deserving than my daughter are told, “We could save your baby, but you’ve hit your cap so he must die.” “We could have prevented this malady from worsening, but you gambled and lost on being uninsured, so your child must live in pain for the rest of her short life.” “We could correct this abnormality, but you’re not covered for it, so your child must live always apart, always on the sideline, always a little feared and a little fearful.” Or, “We will save your child from these scenarios, but it will cost you everything you have—and a whole lot you don’t have and now will never have.”

How can we tell ourselves that every American has an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness when good health is a pre-condition for all three and affordable healthcare is not a given? How can a country with the intellectual capital to provide all the miracles of the NICU not have the brainpower and the willpower to implement affordable, universal healthcare on a par with every other civilized nation?

I have tired of the hypocrisy and gamesmanship that now characterize every aspect of our healthcare “debate.” I have tried to insulate myself from it, spending my days in the Edenic bliss of cooing to and kissing babies. But every morning I look into the faces of three lives saved by affordable healthcare, rescued by access to the amazing array of technology and expertise that our tax dollars have helped develop. And when I do, God breaks in and doesn’t allow me to be content just because my little corner of the world is content right now. Every morning God makes me remember that half of all babies born in the land I love rely not on “Obamacare,” but on the equally imperiled Medicaid—nearly 2 million babies every year, one baby every 16 seconds.

Every morning God points out my counterparts in Big Sandy or Chicago and demands that I explain why I do not care about their babies the way I care about “my” three, why I should not care about them. And I cannot even utter my sorry responses, so profane and pusillanimous are they.

Yes, affordable healthcare is a social justice issue. Yes, it is an economic issue, especially in rural states like Montana. But above all and beyond all, it is a moral issue. At some point, it is not enough to thank God for your good fortune. You must do everything you can to make that fortune not a stroke of luck for some but the bounty of an ever-improving society flowing to all.

I have had the unimaginable blessing this year of waking up every day to three little miracles and lavishing on them the oldest acts of caring. I will not live to see them do the same for their grandchildren. But if I could leave them with just one thing, it wouldn’t be fame. It wouldn’t be fortune. It wouldn’t be talent or intelligence or personality. It would be love. An all-encompassing, indivisible, unconditional love— for themselves, for one another and for their fellows all across the planet. A love worthy of God. Such a love does not withhold care for any reason, least of all for some political theory or game.

So I watch the game evolve, I call my senators and I pray that we do what is right. Because at this very moment, all across this country, at least one of our fellow Americans has just left a doctor’s office and is freaking out.

Mary Sheehy Moe retired from the Montana University System in 2010 and has since served on the Great Falls school board and in the Montana Senate. She lives in Great Falls.