The Uninsured Are Not Just a Number

09/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the last few weeks, I have been asking most of the people I encounter two questions: Do you have health insurance? Are you happy with your health insurance? These are very basic questions, yet, they have the potential to change our whole discourse on health care reform. The number 42 million is being thrown out there as the number of the uninsured. So much of the debate has been on how we can cover this number and at what cost. What this number has done is to depersonalize the uninsured. The uninsured are now a statistic rather than people like us with a fundamental right to life. What is at stake is not whether people have the right to affordable health care, but whether people have the right to life. When people are sick and cannot afford to go to the hospital, they will die. I have seen this firsthand in rural Africa where millions of people die annually from illnesses that can be treated. The situation of the uninsured in this country who self-medicate, and use the emergency room only when their situation is already worst off, is not much different from that of the poor in rural Africa who have no access to hospitals. Of what good are hospitals if you cannot use them because you are uninsured and cannot afford to pay out of pocket?

As I received answers to my two questions, I discovered that the uninsured were not just a number but these are people I encounter every day. Who then are these uninsured people? These are not some imaginary "illegal immigrants" even though plenty of undocumented immigrants are uninsured. They are not some lazy people who have chosen not to work. The uninsured are hardworking American citizens and permanent residents. They are the neighbor you say "hello" to every morning; they are the store clerks who smile and checkout your goods at the store; they are some of those children that are in the same basketball or football team with your daughter or son; they are those hotel staff that pick you up from the airport and clean your hotel room; they are those people that prepare the meals and serve you at your favorite restaurant; it is the lady that gives piano lessons to your children; it is that hardworking man or woman that comes to clean your house monthly; it is a co-worker you have lunch with every day; it is your close friend that you speak often with on the phone. I discovered in the course of researching this article that one of my closest friends whom I assumed had health insurance did not actually have one. In the course of your daily activities, you will run into many people who do not have health insurance.

It is difficult to find someone who is happy with his health insurance. Most people I spoke with were not happy with their health insurance. There is always something in the contract the insurance company can find to deny claims. People who reject health care reform argue that they do not want the government to stand in-between them and their physicians. Who do you prefer to stand in-between you and the doctor: the government or the insurance company? I would trust the government more than the insurance company because at least, the government is not out to make profits.

Health care reform is necessary. If we believe in the fundamental right to life, we must work hard to achieve universal health care. After discovering the uninsured around me, this has become personal. You may be insured today. You may even be happy with your health insurance today, but do you know when you may become the victim of this failing system? You may lose your job. Your company may drop coverage. The insurance company may deny or drop you for a pre-existing condition. Think about how you will feel if you are a victim. Let us work together to achieve meaningful reform with a strong public option.