Opinion » Bill Cope


The criminals we rely on


A year ago last May, a neighbor of yours felt a lump in one of her breasts. She didn't panic. If you know her at all, you know she is not the sort to panic. She has spent a lifetime cultivating a calm and mature spirituality, the sort of attitude that helps get one beyond terrible news. Without it, she may have never recovered from the loss of her husband eight years earlier.

Secondly, she was insured. The fear of financial ruin that comes to those with no health insurance when they find something irregular and unwanted in their breast (or prostate, or lungs ... wherever) did not come to her. She was covered, she thought.

But most of all, she didn't initially believe the lump to be anything to get panicked over. Her mother had had benign fibroids, a relatively harmless thing that runs in families, so where many people might have jumped to the worst conclusion, your neighbor assumed the best.

No such luck. It was cancer. And it was in both breasts. Only there was a different kind in each breast. As I understand it, they couldn't treat both cancers at the same time, each demanding a specific brew of chemo and radiation. So for months, her doctors were fighting on two fronts, like in a big war, only they couldn't fire on the West at the same time they were firing on the East, so to speak.

Eventually, a mastectomy had to be done. A double mastectomy. For a woman barely into her 60s, that can't have been an easy decision. But what are you gonna do when the doctors tell you it's either that, or ...

She had the operation in February and while recovering from that ordeal, she came down with pneumonia. Then, just days after coming out of the hospital, she fell and broke her hip. Were she not so weakened by months of battling cancer, she probably wouldn't have fallen in the first place, and most people at her relatively young age probably wouldn't have broken a hip by simply tipping over in the laundry room, had they not just been through such a debilitating war. But that's what happened. She was back in the hospital getting a partial hip replacement.

Ah, can this story get any worse?

Of course it can. As so many Americans who have faced or are facing similar woes have learned, it takes an insurance company to smear the bitterest icing on this sort of cake.

Our neighbor had been on her husband's insurance until he died, and afterward, had to get her own. She went with a recognized and established brand (which shall remain nameless, but allow yourself to envision any insurance company you've ever heard of and it's not unthinkable it is the one in this story) and she had been paying on her coverage for a good two years before she felt that first lump. There was no sane way they could claim a broken hip and pneumonia were pre-existing conditions, so they paid their full share on those. But next to the price tag on the cancer, the cost of the hip and pneumonia was chump change. And they did find a way to pin the cancer on pre-existing conditions. How they can claim she had it so long before she knew she had it is beyond me.

But then, they don't have to prove it, do they? That is the black magic of health insurance. All they have to do is issue a denial-of-benefits, and their duty disappears. Then, when the smoke and sulfurous smell clears, there's your bill. All yours, whether you have the means to pay it or not.

Is there anything about this woman's tale you haven't heard before?

I admit, I had never known there was more than one kind of breast cancer, or that you can have two of them at once. Other than that, it's a cruelly familiar story. And what makes it so familiar--and so cruel--isn't the cancer, the broken hip or the pneumonia. Those things are mindless and random, like mosquitoes and rain. Besides, they can be fought and defeated. But what do you do about a corporate policy so diseased and inhuman that no blend of chemo or dose of radiation can rid us of it?

The neighbor I've been telling you about isn't just another anecdote. She's Janie Harris, widow of Gene and friend of this writer. If you have ever been to the Boise State Gene Harris Jazz Festival, you've probably seen her. If you've ever tuned in to KBSU radio on a Saturday night, you've probably heard her. She is a cultural keystone to this community. Without her, Boise would be less than it is by far.

And in being Janie Harris, she is more fortunate than your average, anecdotal cancer survivor--the one in your family, perhaps--who is in suffocating debt because some rotten sonofabitch insurance company weaseled out of their responsibility. Janie has a circle of friends like most of us have blades of grass in our lawn, and one of them, Paul Tillotson, has organized a benefit to help her out with that burden of hers. (See Noise, Page 23.)

But I have to ask: Is this any way to run a country? Whether it's the naked immorality of insurance companies or the shameful absence of any health insurance at all for millions, the financial ruination of Americans--not to mention the actual deaths--has become as common as weeds in foreclosed lawns. It is impossible for most thoughtful citizens to imagine how it could get much worse, yet battalions of insurance lobby shock goons are invading town hall meetings across the country--ignorant savages, spitting their venom on those who would improve our lives, trying their best to make sure this travesty we call a health-care system continues on as it is.

We may be justifiably proud that good-hearted people so often come together and help out their neighbors when something like this arises. But considered from another angle, the same good people allow it to come to such desperate and insufficient measures (be it a benefit concert for Janie Harris or a string of donation jars in bars and convenience stores with a picture of someone less known taped to the glass) by not demanding that our leaders stop it from happening. What that rotten insurance company did to Janie--what another insurance company did to a loved one of yours, perhaps--is a crime. We all know it. We all know a crime when we see one, whether or not it is written into a statute as such. The criminals hide their faces under masks of corporate respectability and legal obstacles, but nevertheless, they are criminals.

We cannot allow them to continue. They threaten our nation, they threaten our families, they threaten us. Today, Janie Harris is their victim. Tomorrow ...