09/18/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why Hilda Needs Universal Health Care

A week doesn't go by in my district offices without some constituent, often several, calling in a panic about a personal health care crisis. These calls come not only from people who aren't insured, but increasingly from those who are -- or think they are. Most of the time, they are shocked and furious that, now that they actually need the coverage, their policies don't seem to apply.

I know my office is not unique among Congressional offices. Thus, one would think that a massive overhaul of our completely dysfunctional health care non-system would be a no-brainer. Maybe in an Obama administration it will be, but I doubt it. There will still be those defenders of the insurance industry, mostly Republicans, who think the system is just fine, with maybe a few tweaks. Even with a supportive President Obama, it won't be a cakewalk to take on the pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, HMOs and all those who profit handsomely from sick Americans while contributing generously to political campaigns.

Hilda is an example of one of the common, everyday stories we hear. She lives in my district, is uninsured, and too young for Medicare. She grosses about $1,300 a month as a home care worker for an elderly woman. If you think about that, it's easy to get really mad. She works full time at an important and difficult job taking care of another human being, but can't afford the care she herself needs.

Hilda has severe pain in her stomach and also in her neck. A doctor told her she needed an ultrasound in both places in order to make a proper diagnosis. Because of her situation -- uninsured and low income -- she could only afford one. She picked her stomach. It hurt the most.

The doctor discovered a large fibroid tumor on her uterus and a cyst in her ovary. She was told that she needed a hysterectomy. This was financially out of her league. So, she continued to work while in severe pain, this time knowing why and what to do about it but unable to afford the surgery. Meanwhile, Hilda's neck was still killing her but in this case she didn't know what was causing the pain because she couldn't afford the ultrasound.

Because my office was able to get a local hospital to examine her and perform the surgery at a 100% discount through their charity care program, Hilda will have the operation this week. It's unclear how long she will be out of work, and, as if this whole ordeal weren't a big enough pain in the neck, she still has the pain in her neck.

My office has been trying to enroll Hilda in the Medicaid program, but today we heard from the Illinois Department of Human Services that she is not eligible for Medicaid or any other state program because she didn't prove that she is disabled. Who is her employer that can't offer any health coverage? The Illinois Department of Human Services.

This common to us story would sound strange in most first-world counties. Every other industrialized nation in the world considers health care a right and has figured out a system to make it available to all of its people, some more effectively than others, and all at considerably less cost. Japan for example spends half of what we spend and has much better outcomes. Compare the U.S. to the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland and Japan, and you'll find that people in those countries live longer, have lower infant mortality, and overall get more bang for their buck.

I myself favor a single-payer system, a kind of beefed up "Medicare for all" system as the best way to go. I like the Obama plan because it moves in that direction. Under his plan, consumers may choose to enroll in a public plan (like Medicare), or choose a private insurance plan that meets the high quality standards set by the government. I think the public plan in the end will prove itself to be by far the most efficient way to finance a health care system.

Until the United States joins the rest of the world in providing universal health care, families will continue to muddle their way through as best they can. Some people simply won't make it. The Urban Institute estimates that 22,000 people died in 2006 because they didn't have health insurance. Many other people will face bankruptcy, stick to a job they hate to keep the insurance, cut their pills in half, or pray their kids don't fall off their bikes. But I hope some of them - maybe you - will take the time to contact their member of Congress and demand an American health care program that guarantees everyone accessible, affordable, quality health care.

If you have a health care horror story to tell, I'd like to know about it.