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Health Care Activists Thrust Into Decidedly Unhealthy Lifestyles

First Posted: 03/18/10 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 03:55 PM ET

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At 8:45 a.m. on a cold morning in Washington D.C. last week, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) meandered into the Capitol building through an entrance on the Senate side. Walking around the metal detector she paused to wait for an elevator to the second floor.

"You ready for one more day of health care?" the Huffington Post asked.

Snowe turned slightly away from the elevator, a slight, tired grin on her face. "One more day? How about one more week? How about three more weeks or another month?" she replied. "You're being way too optimistic."

And with that, she was gone, en route to a morning filled with impossibly busy hours, intense negotiations and impassioned floor speeches.

The health care reform debate is now, unofficially, in its 10 month. And, as Snowe can attest, it has worn people thin. Gone is the eagerness with which members of Congress, congressional staffers, and activists off the Hill once tackled the subject. In its place is fatigue and a growing despondence. While a cottage industry of government and non-government operatives have devoted nearly a year to improving the health care of others, they've spent little time worrying about their own wellbeing.

Gym memberships have gone unused. Smoking is on the rise. Food from vending machines has become a dietary staple, as have energy drinks. Friends and loved ones have gone unseen. Laundry has gone unwashed. And sleep -- like the once-cherished two-day weekend -- seems impossible to reclaim.

It's far from the regular perils of blue-collar work. And these individuals already have the safety net of health insurance should they get sick. But the lives they've been living are, to put it bluntly, unhealthy -- even as they work to solve the health problems of others.

Take, for instance, the day the House of Representatives passed its version of health care legislation. It was a Saturday. Eddie Vale and Lori Lodes, health care operatives with the AFL-CIO and SEIU respectively, spent the day on couch in Lodes's living room, laptops at the ready. For 14 hours, the two stared at C-SPAN 2's broadcast from the House floor, pounded Red Bulls and snacked on junk food. Constantly communicating with fellow staffers and reporters, they also stayed on top of the debate through Twitter. Towards the end, as delirium was kicking in and signs pointed to health care's passage, they switched from Red Bulls to bourbon. By midnight, they eagerly sent out their final statements on the vote -- and were mercifully done. Weeks later, they repeated the process as the Senate voted to consider its own legislation.

"Passing health care reform will be good for me some day but for now it has only resulted in sleep deprivation, mainlining caffeine and lots of hot dogs from street vendors," Vale said.

On the day of the House vote, Hill staffers roamed the halls of the Capitol with dazed looks, having spent the previous night working on a compromise for abortion language. Reporters, likewise, were groggy. Many had arrived on the Hill at 10 a.m. to chase after the president, who delivered a closed-door pep talk to Democratic lawmakers. Others were grabbing seats in the House Press Gallery, where they would spend the remainder of the day. At roughly 1:00 p.m., Jonathan Allen (then of Politico) ordered six greasy pizzas for the group to consume. They were washed down with soda from the vending machine.

Stories like these are numerous. And, in a perverse way, the deprivartions have become a source of pride. On the Senate Finance Committee alone, there are a host of health care masochists.

Russ Sullivan, the staff director of the committee and one of the most important health care staffers on Capitol Hill was given the key to his dry cleaner's store because the hours he works means he's never home when they're open. His colleague, Tom Reeder, the senior tax counsel on the staff, had guests visiting him from Alaska who, despite staying in his home, he didn't see for days. Scott Mulhauser, the communications director at Finance, said it was safe to report that "the vending machines in the Hart Office Building are without snacks and the ones left are the stuff you wouldn't want to eat." Another aide was forced by friends and family to lock his Blackberry in a closet during Thanksgiving for fear that he would be too distracted. Jacki Schechner, the communications director for the pro-reform group Health Care for America Now, brings hers to the gym so she can check email while on the treadmill. She's known, she says, for typing while jogging.

One health care policy adviser, who asked to remain nameless, drives 250 miles every Friday evening to Pittsburgh to see her husband who is doing a fellowship in the city. The four-hour jaunt, in recent months, has been for a slim 36-hour visit, as the staffer has been forced to leave Sunday afternoon. Her presence in the Senate being required first thing Monday morning, she's unable to work remotely.

The meetings, at least at the higher levels, come fast and early. Hill staffers are in by 7:15 a.m. and have already hosted three strategy session by 9:15. By 11 a.m. that number is likely up to five, before a wave of press requests begin to flood in. Normally the staffers are out of the office by 8:30 or 9:00 p.m. But lately the departure hour has been closer to midnight.

One beleaguered Democratic aide compared the pace to working on a campaign. The description applies to the press as well, with dozens of reporters chasing the same parcel of news. Chris Frates, who was dispatched by Politico to cover the health care debate, works from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., filing developing health care stories. A break for dinner and a few hours of relaxation are interrupted at midnight when, for the next three hours or so, he puts together material for his publication's subsection: Politico Pulse. Recently, the 14-hour days have extended to the weekends, as important votes or caucus meetings have demanded his presence. The crazy hours have forced him to give up time at the gym, producing, what he called, "a snugger waistline."

"It's a brutal schedule for sure, but I feed off the energy of my readers who send links, tips and, of course, song lyrics," said Frates. "The large quantities of coffee and Red Bull don't hurt, either."


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