Dear President Biden:
You spoke my heart last night as you honored the half million souls lost to COVID-19 in the last year in this country.
It’s hard to wrap my heart around the grief that runs through this nation right now. But you need to know this grief that surrounds unnecessary death is far older than the pandemic, and it needs to be addressed.
You, having suffered so much loss, are perhaps the most empathetic man ever to set foot in the White House, and you are the polar opposite of the previous occupant in that respect (and in many others).
But you need to know this grief surrounding unnecessary death has been with us for decades, as people who have no access to health care are tossed aside like so much garbage.
When you spoke of opening the closet and not just seeing, but detecting the scent of your loved one on the clothing hanging there, I thought of the leather jacket my late son wore, its scent now dissipated after 13 years.
When you spoke of watching your son’s life fade from his eyes, I remembered sitting by my own’s son’s side as he breathed his last, I remembered being so angry that my heart didn’t stop, too.
Those final six weeks of his life are etched deeply in my very being, and I re-live them every year — now for the 13th time, as my heart keeps on beating.
I remember the sound of his voice as he asked what I was going to do with the “Dead Kid Card.” He had this twisted sense of humor, you see, and he played the “Cancer Card” the whole time he was sick. As he lay dying, he mentioned that I would have the “Dead Kid Card,” and he wanted to know how I would play it.
“I don’t want it,” I said.
“Doesn’t matter what you want,” he said. “It’s being dealt. What are you going to do with it?”
He paused as I sat, staring.
“What are you going to do?”
I promised him I would fight for health care for everyone every day, in every way I could imagine, as long as I had breath in my body.
Mike was born with a rare birth defect and it left him very vulnerable to a particularly nasty form of colon cancer.
That birth defect was deemed by insurance companies to be a pre-existing condition, so he couldn’t buy insurance. Without insurance, he had to pay for the colonoscopies he needed every year out-of-pocket. He’d already had pre-cancerous polyps removed before he was 25.
Mike decided to go back to college when he was 28, and since he was working part-time while he went to school, employer-based insurance was denied to him. He couldn’t find a doctor who would let him pay for a colonoscopy in installments, so he went without. It was a risk he had to take because there were no other options for him.
He got sick in the beginning of his junior year. Abdominal pain, vomiting, constipation … His doctor demanded $2,300 cash up front, so Mike still couldn’t get the test he needed so badly. His doctor wrote in his record, “Patient needs a colonoscopy but can’t afford it.” Can you imagine seeing that in your child’s medical record?
He went to the emergency room, but as you know, they only have to stabilize you there, not find the root cause of your problem. So, he was sent home with pain pills and a laxative — and a bill for several thousand dollars — when his real problem was a malignant tumor. No one helped until it was too late so save his life.
Even after he got sick, he was denied Medicaid until he left his wife.
He applied for disability and was denied. Approval ultimately took 37 months and his first check came nine days after he died.
Mike died at 3:50 p.m. on April 1, 2008, just a few months before you would become vice president. At that time, it’s estimated an American died once every 12 minutes — 45,000 a year — from lack of access to health care. By early 2020, before the pandemic, that number had risen to 68,000 a year, or one every eight minutes.
You know the grief of losing someone whose life you held more dear than your own. Imagine it had happened because of systemic medical neglect, and that neglect was not only tolerated, it was protected.
As long as private insurance companies are in control, they will dictate who gets care and who does not. They found a way around the Affordable Care Act. They simply jacked up deductibles until most people couldn’t afford to use their policies. The average deductible — or, as I like to call it, ransom — is more than $3,000 at a time when 140 million Americans live in or near poverty. They can’t pay, so they don’t get care.
Many of these half million COVID deaths could have been prevented of people had been able to seek help earlier in the course of their illness.
Mike was born on my birthday, so I mark the passing each year as another year without his sense of humor. I miss that most of all.
I miss the sound of his tone-deaf voice as we sang “Happy birthday to ME!” at the top of our lungs every year.
I miss the late night phone calls where we would talk about everything from Phil Collins to philosophy.
I miss cooking with him. I miss making up new recipes.
I miss the way he slathered butter on my homemade bread while proclaiming, “The only thing wrong with this bread is that it’s not at my house!”
I miss his utter impatience with bad drivers, actually hollering out the car window, “Hey! It’s the long, thin pedal on the right. You press it down with your foot!”
I miss how he loved animals and talked to them as if they could understand him, and how often it seemed as though they did.
And my grief is multiplied by a half million deaths from the same cause since he died. I live in a state where lawmakers steadfastly refuse to expand Medicaid. Three people die here every day from systemic neglect, just the way my son did, and these lives are no less precious than his or mine, or yours.
I know you to be a man of deep, deep empathy, so I can’t understand why you wouldn’t be pushing Medicare for all. That alone is the reason I didn’t support you in the primary election, and why I was so angry when you became the nominee.
All this empathy needs to be focused on preventing the depth of grief you and I live with every day. You understand it, and you can do something to lessen it.
When President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act, a hot mic caught you calling that step forward “a big f***ing deal,” and I loved that.
But that big deal has been derailed by Big Insurance, and we won’t be able to find a fix without getting them out. It’s time for Medicare for all.
You have more power to fix this than anyone else. You need to step up and do the decent thing.
Everyone deserves care. Everyone.