Why Obamacare Matters to Me

October 25, 2012

Obamacare matters to me.

As a caregiver of elders, a writer, and a woman growing older, I’ve had a chance to observe healthcare reform through a very special window these last few years, a window on ordinary life in the midst of extraordinary change.

Obamacare, that shorthand term for America’s national healthcare reform passed by Congress in 2010, is a word that is receiving both praise and blame in this election season. After all, the legislation championed by President Barack Obama is modeled on the plan adopted in my own state of Massachusetts under Mr. Obama’s challenger, then-Governor Mitt Romney.

But for me, from my window, Obamacare is more than a political issue, more than a set of policies defined in laws and implemented in rules and regulations.

What I see in America’s healthcare reform is an opportunity to change our nation’s health for the better, one person and one day at a time. What I see in America’s healthcare reform is a notion of community that is encoded in our national DNA, a notion of shared pain, shared responsibility, and shared health.

Goodness knows that shared pain is a daily, even hourly, reality for the people I love and care for. Just last week, one of my recent clients passed away. Just the week before, my son Edward’s step-uncle was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Edward’s adored stepmother and step-grandmother — we have a great extended family! — are driving down to see him. Our Thanksgiving, this year, will be layered with sorrow as well as joy.

I think that shared pain can move mountains. I remember watching breast cancer survivors testify at hearings in the New Hampshire legislature in the 1990s. As the director of the NH Women’s Lobby, I sat with them in the gallery when the House passed legislation requiring insurers to cover bone marrow transplants for breast cancer. It was a poignant and revealing moment, seeing the personal become political and the political touch each person so deeply.

If we are smart about it, shared pain can motivate us to accept shared responsibility. Because the new federal framework is national in scope, we all have a chance to pull in the same direction, toward improving healthcare quality while reducing healthcare costs. Because the new framework has room for pilot programs and community-based initiatives, we can participate on many levels, as healthcare consumers, health practitioners and administrators, teachers and researchers and social service workers, legislators and other policymakers, businesses and news media, and more.

So how can this process work, changing our health for the better, one person and one day at a time? It will take vision, energy, trust, and enough resilience to bounce back from inevitable missteps and failures.

Let me offer an example from my own life.

This morning I visited my gastroenterologist to get checked out for a bothersome problem. As I lay on the examining table, staring at the gray paint on the wall, I thought about the conversation I’d just had with my doctor. I told him that I’ve been eating a lot more fiber, focusing on three healthy meals a day plus a scheduled snack, and I’ve lost 42 pounds in the last 18 months. This amounts to a 20% decrease in my body weight.

That’s impressive, my doctor said. How did you do it?

Well, I explained, I see a counselor for help with my behaviors around food, and I belong to a free, twelve-step program for people who want to stop eating compulsively. There are members in the program who have sustained 50-, 60-, 100-pound weight loss for 20 years or more.

That’s better than surgery, my doctor said. He told me that he has patients who go through weight-loss surgery and then, over the next two or three years, gain all the weight back. I offered to bring him some brochures on the program for his patients. He said yes, absolutely.

Today, as my doctor listened to my story, I felt heard, understood, and empowered. In that moment, I saw what Obamacare really means, if we’re smart: an opportunity to pay attention to our own health and well-being, and then, as systematically and thoughtfully as we can, to share with others our experience, strength, and hope.

Yours in health,

Mary Ann

Mary Ann Barton, BA, CNA

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