Family's Vote Hinges on Health Care Reform

12/01/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

**By Esme E. Deprez**

HAZLETON, Pa. -- Nine years ago, Jeanie Bruno started having trouble being on her feet for long periods of time. Bouts of numbness and vertigo followed.

She was working as a nurse at the time, and one day, she remembered over a cup of tea in her Pennsylvania home, she was holding a syringe about to give an injection to a patient. Her hands trembling, "I better not do this," she thought, and turned to a colleague for help.

After doctors found lesions on both hemispheres of Bruno's brain, they diagnosed her with Multiple Sclerosis and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. This summer, a rheumatologist added Fibromyalgia to the list. Bruno, 51, had to stop taking care of others in order to take care of herself, and has been out of work ever since.

2008-10-30-JeanieBruno.jpgIn many ways, Bruno and her family are a microcosm of America, struggling with the same problems that are influencing the way families across the country are voting in this year's presidential election. Living in a town that has been divided over illegal immigration (Mayor Lou Barletta made Hazleton the first local government to pass immigration-related ordinances in 2006), the Brunos are a military family, facing increasing health care costs and laden with thousands of dollars in medical bills. They are turning to the Democratic Party for solutions.

Bruno is one of some 45 million Americans today who are uninsured and whose problems have been compounded by health care costs that have been rising steadily for years. The Kaiser Family Foundation reported earlier this year that health care spending in the United States exceeded $2 trillion in 2006, more than eight times the $253 billion spent in 1980. Employer-sponsored health coverage premiums have increased by 87 percent since 2000.

Low-skill jobs have gradually replaced Hazleton's once thriving coal mining industry, according to Bob Klemow, 60, a retired school teacher and lifelong resident. Much of the area is working class, and the formerly vibrant downtown area bears the scars of decades of hard economic times.

Sen. Barack Obama's proposed plan to make health care affordable for everyone has attracted the attention and support of Bruno. "People are hurting out here," she said. "I feel that he takes everybody into consideration, and people of all walks of life and financial status will benefit from it. Millions of people have serious health issues and can't get them taken care of [under the current system]."

Obama has promised to implement a universal health care system by the end of his first term. The plan would require coverage for children, and allows adults the option to remain with their own private plan or to subscribe to a public one modeled on the benefits Federal employees receive.

After Bruno stopped working as a nurse, she applied to seven insurance companies, only to be rejected by each one because of her pre-existing conditions. Bruno finally qualified for federal disability payments in 2002, but once the $800 a month she receives is used up, she must pay for the rest of her medical expenses out-of-pocket. Obama's plan, she noted, would not allow insurance companies to deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions, as happened in her case.

In 2004, Bruno found herself in the cardiac unit with a depleted thyroid. "I thought I was having a heart attack," she said. One ambulance ride and week in the hospital left her owing roughly $4,000 to Geisinger Medical Center in nearby Danville. She continues to make payments four years later of over $80 a month.

Bruno has been fortunate so far, having avoided bankruptcy. Her husband owns a small home improvement business, although it has seen its revenue decline as the economy worsens. Others like her aren't so lucky. A 2005 Harvard Medical School study found that some 2 million Americans a year are in families who file for bankruptcy following illness or injury, accounting for about half of all bankruptcies in the U.S. Experts warn that many Americans are one hospital visit away from filing for Chapter 11.

"It's something that's in the back of my mind of course," Bruno said about the prospect of bankruptcy. "It's a very scary thought. I'm only 51--what's going to happen when I'm 65?"

In addition to herself, Bruno must also care for her ailing mother. In August of this year, Clara, 79, fell ill with a serious heart condition. Her primary health insurance, Medicare, would not cover the full costs of surgery. So John, Clara's son and Bruno's brother, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army and veteran of the Iraq war, listed his mother as a dependent on his military insurance plan, TRICARE. Initially, TRICARE agreed to cover the costs of Clara's operation, but denied coverage on the day of the operation because Clara was not John's spouse or child.

By that time the surgery was already under way, and the hospital has since applied for medical assistance to help Clara with the costs. If the application is unsuccessful, John will be left to pay the estimated $50,000 balance. "There's no way she could pay it on her own," Bruno said. "If John wasn't able to, my mother would lose her home."

Bruno describes herself as a lifelong Democrat, although she voted for President Bush in 2004, partially over national security. "I bought into the whole fear thing," she said. "The war had already started, and I was afraid that someone new might make things worse. By 2006 I knew it was a big mistake, and I'll never do that again." Her son Aaron, 24, just finished basic training for the National Guard and is headed for Officers Candidate School in Alabama next year. He too will cast a ballot for Obama next week, after voting for Bush in 2004.

Even though her health problems make it hard to get around, Bruno has been volunteering at the local Obama campaign office, making phone calls, registering voters and translating Spanish to English for the community's growing Latino population.

In the swing state of Pennsylvania, Sen. John McCain and Obama have been ferociously battling for its 21 electoral votes. A win here on Nov. 4 may well make or break the election for one of them. The Keystone State voted Democratic in the past two presidential elections, and in 2004 John Kerry won Luzerne County, in which Hazleton is located, as did Al Gore in 2000. The Brunos are hoping this year Obama will be able to do the same.