For Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass., the fight to protect the Affordable Care Act (ACA) from Republican attacks isn’t just politics. It’s personal.
Jen Fox, a cancer survivor who is an intern in Kennedy’s Capitol office, credits Obamacare for saving her life twice and fears that her story would have had a different ending if she had needed treatment under President Trump’s American Health Care Act (AHCA).
“What’s going on right now is pretty scary,” Fox told Yahoo News Wednesday morning. “I think that the Affordable Care Act is amazing. A lot of people don’t realize all of the things that it does or that even if you have private insurance — like I did — it provides protections for people involving preexisting conditions and lifetime caps. A lot of people don’t realize how important it is until they need it.”
Fox, now 25, is a junior studying political communication at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Last weekend marked the fourth anniversary of her successful stem-cell transplant, and she’s been mostly cancer-free since. Thanks to early detection, recently spotted melanoma was treated swiftly and without complications.
Kennedy, the grandson of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and grandnephew of President John F. Kennedy, brought Fox to Trump’s joint address to Congress on Feb. 28. She was on Capitol Hill again for last week’s 28-hour marathon hearing about the health care law — where Republicans shared numerous stories about how horrible Obamacare has been.
“I was scared, honestly. It’s frightening,” she said. “I hope this law does not get repealed. I hope that the next person in my shoes has a happy ending to their unfortunate situation.”
Kennedy and Fox were troubled that Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted on March 9 to move forward with dismantling the ACA. Kennedy said his home state of Massachusetts — which launched its own public health care plan in 2006 — demonstrates that the ACA could work if there were a bipartisan consensus to support it.
“My frustration is I hear those concerns from other constituents around the country but how come they can’t hear mine?” Kennedy told Yahoo News. “How come they can’t see Jen sitting in the audience and her saying, ‘You have your challenges with this law but it saved my life’? And she’s standing right in front of you.”
On Tuesday’s “Morning Joe,” Kennedy made national headlines while discussing Fox. He choked up slightly while saying that Obamacare had saved her life twice.
A day before, the Congressional Budget Office released its estimate that 14 million people would lose their health insurance next year if the AHCA were signed into law. That figure would rise to 24 million by 2026 if the Republican-backed plan goes through, according to the estimate.
The CBO also reported that Trumpcare would decrease Medicaid spending by $880 billion and could trim the federal deficit by $337 billion over the next decade.
“And we’re somehow proud of that?” Kennedy said. “That’s not a health care bill, that’s a tax cut. You’re balancing the budget and giving money to the rich on the backs literally of families working paycheck to paycheck. That’s not what health care is supposed to be about.”
About a year ago, Kennedy asked Fox how she got involved in politics. That’s when he first learned about her battle with cancer and her personal appreciation of Obamacare.
Fox, of Hopkinton, Mass., was already an active voter and cared about politics in 2011 when she detected a lump in her neck at 19. One doctor said she had nothing to worry about, but she went for a second opinion and discovered she had Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, leading to multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.
After recovering (the first time), she earned an associate’s degree at a community college in Wellesley, Mass., and took an internship at Kennedy’s Newton, Mass., office doing casework — directly helping people with Medicare and Social Security. She transferred to George Washington University and continued interning for Kennedy in Washington, D.C.
She had a clean bill of health for several years, but the cancer recurred when she was 24. In her estimate, the medical bills came somewhere close to $2 million.
Fox and Kennedy said several aspects of the ACA saved her physically and financially: She was allowed to stay on her parents’ insurance until 26, she was not subjected to a lifetime cap (otherwise she may have bankrupted herself and her family), and now she cannot be denied regular checkups because of a preexisting condition.
She said she was lucky to have gotten cancer when she did and not two years earlier, when the Affordable Care Act was not yet in place.
“If I had gotten sick prior to the signing of the Affordable Care Act, I wouldn’t have benefited from the protections in it,” Fox said. “The insurance companies used to have lifetime cap limits: You could max out of your benefits. And cancer treatment’s really expensive. Without a doubt, I would’ve maxed out before my relapse of cancer.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has been a longtime opponent of Obamacare and has celebrated the new bill as “a conservative wish list.” Kennedy said he respects Ryan and thinks he’s “a decent man” but disagrees “passionately” with him on what health care is supposed to be and what the government’s role for insuring access to it should be.
“I find the justifications for this piece of legislation to be particularly galling,” Kennedy said. “I don’t know how anyone could be proud about taking health care away from 52 million people. I don’t know how anyone can be proud of the fact that we are stripping health care away from those that need it most, particularly for people in that Medicaid population.”
Kennedy said all Americans will never get equal health care services, but a worthwhile goal would be access to a basic level of quality care. He argued it’s a lie that the new bill provides more choice. Now, he continued, some Americans will be forced to choose between their medication and their rent.
“This says, ‘If you’re in need, good luck. Hope you saved some money and can pull yourself up by your bootstraps. I hope you put money in a health savings account. And if you didn’t, too bad.‘ ”
Both Kennedy and Fox hope that politicians will work to improve certain aspects of the ACA but think throwing away the entire bill without taking into account how many Americans rely upon it for basic insurance would be a careless mistake.
“I think you don’t realize what it does or how important it is until you actually need it,” Fox said.
Fox received treatment at Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. She said many patients there around her age wouldn’t have been able to afford treatment if it weren’t for the ACA.
“No one plans to get cancer at 19. Nobody plans for their kid to get sick and require millions of dollars in medical bills,” Fox said. “You don’t plan for your kids to get cancer. You don’t plan to have a heart attack or a stroke. These are all unpredictable, and saying people should have the freedom to not buy health care. … the idea of that just blows my mind.”
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