Six years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer. I had just finished graduate school three weeks earlier and was preparing to join the Peace Corps when life took an unexpected turn.
During a routine physical I told my doctor about minor knee pain and swelling around the joint. I was otherwise healthy and didn’t think much about it but my doctor suggested I get an MRI to be safe, and I soon got the news that would change everything. I was diagnosed with an aggressive but relatively early-stage tumor in my femur. My life flashed before my eyes. This was my first experience with a serious medical condition and I had hundreds of questions.
Months earlier, realizing I would have a nine-month gap in my health insurance coverage before starting my job, I enrolled in health insurance under my parents’ plan because of a provision in the Affordable Care Act (ACA). As a healthy 25-year-old, a short nine months without health insurance didn’t seem like a big deal. In fact, the small risk I thought I was taking seemed worthwhile if it meant I could save money in the short term. But my parents prevailed on me and convinced me to get insurance. Never could I have imagined that it would save my life. As the current annual open enrollment period comes to an end, I reflect on how one seemingly inconsequential decision not only saved my life and allowed me to afford the quality health care I desperately needed, but also how it set me on a new path to help others understand the importance of getting health insurance. My life depended on it and I know countless others across the country face similar situations every day.
After a year of chemotherapy, five surgeries, a knee replacement, and relearning how to walk, my team of doctors declared me cancer-free! While the physical treatment was over, my experience left a lasting effect that set me on a new path to help people like me understand why getting health insurance is both easy and one of the most consequential decisions you’ll make. Rather than head to the Peace Corps as originally planned, I channeled my passion for helping others into a new job with the New York City Public Engagement Unit, an innovative government initiative that conducts targeted outreach and provides personalized assistance to help ensure all New Yorkers get covered and receive access to the quality care they deserve.
With President Trump creating confusion about the law and attempting to prevent people from getting the coverage they deserve, it is especially important for local governments to fill the void and lead the effort to protect their communities. Formed by Mayor de Blasio, the Public Engagement Unit oversees GetCoveredNYC, which proactively knocks on doors, calls homes, and works in local communities, including the neighborhood where I live in Brooklyn, to help people sign up for health insurance. We are meeting New Yorkers where they are. I get to help my community and neighbors through every step of the process of getting insurance and getting the care they deserve and need – the same care that helped me survive cancer. Even with everything I’ve been through, I never could have imagined just how rewarding this experience would be.
During the current open enrollment period, which began on November 1 and runs through January 31, 2018 for New York, GetCoveredNYC has been taking calls nonstop to schedule appointments for insurance enrollment and we’re seeing lines at office hours and community events to sign up. Many of the people I enroll are healthy and with their new insurance they can regularly access preventative care. But I’ve also helped people with any number of medical issues, ranging from diabetes and depression to cancer patients like I was several years ago. Too often I meet New Yorkers who don’t know about their options under the ACA, let alone that they’re eligible for low- or no-cost health insurance. I know better than most that the purposely misleading rhetoric out of Washington is flat out dangerous, which is why I’m so encouraged by the high enrollment numbers in New York and across the country.
My story is but one of millions across the country. Sadly it is not unique there are many people with similar circumstances who fare far worse than I did because of one crucial difference: health insurance. But for my health insurance, I would not have had access to a routine screening, I would not have been able to afford the MRI, and I can only imagine that my story would have played out far differently. It’s often too easy to get caught up in ongoing debate about the ACA and lose focus on the lifesaving impact this law has on people across the country. People just like me who face a new reality at the blink of an eye. People just like me who would otherwise be unable to manage the severe financial burden that’s unfortunately part and parcel of a cancer diagnosis. Over 20 million people across the country receive health care through one of the ACA’s provisions but millions more are eligible and can enroll in coverage, many times at little or no cost.
I cannot stress this enough: make health care a topic of conversation at the dinner table, with friends and coworkers, and in your community. If you are uninsured, sign up; if you are insured, help others sign up. The fight ahead will surely be long and hard, but it is one on which people’s lives depend, and there’s no fight more urgent right now.