EVERETT — Holly Hill was 20 years old when her life changed forever.
That’s when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease that affects the central nervous system. She said after that she spent much of her life hiding the illness that can debilitate an otherwise healthy person without warning.
She said she worried about losing her job or switching insurers and being denied coverage or facing steep premiums. This, even though she was covered by insurance at work.
Her anxiety about her condition abated once the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare, made it through Congress in 2010.
“All my life I’ve been afraid of losing my health insurance,” she said, explaining that her treatments cost $5,000 per month.
Hill and a dozen people from health care and patient advocacy groups met with Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, Sunday afternoon at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett. Cantwell spent a large part of a 90-minute roundtable discussion about the pre-existing condition provision of the law listening to Hill and others. Their stories and voices are an important voice in the revived debate about national health care coverage, Cantwell said.
Lately the Renton woman, her husband and others who have benefited from the federal law worry they may be at risk again. Specifically, they fear a court case could mean the repeal of a provision that protects people from being denied health insurance because of pre-existing conditions. An estimated 300,000 people in Snohomish County and 3 million in the state under 65 years old have pre-existing conditions, according to Cantwell.
“I didn’t choose to get this disease,” Hill said. “I didn’t do anything to get this disease.”
Dr. Eugene May, a neurologist with the Swedish Neuroscience Institute Multiple Sclerosis Center, said many of the 2.3 million people affected by multiple sclerosis start experiencing symptoms in their 20s. That means a lifetime of treatment in order to live without debilitating symptoms. And it is far from cheap, he said, at an annual cost of at least $60,000 for medication.
A 16-year-old boy from Shoreline told Cantwell about having hemophilia, a condition that hinders a person’s blood from clotting properly. His dad said he has received regular and costly treatments since he was 1. All of that has added up over the years, causing the man to hit his maximum limit for three different insurance policies.
That makes him fearful of what the future holds for his son when he enters the workforce if an insurer is allowed to deny him coverage.
Leaders from the Snohomish County and Washington state chapters of the National Alliance on Mental Illness said people with a mental illness suffer from other diseases, either because of the anxiety and stress from that or from the medications. All of it can lead to a life cut short, if left untreated.
What’s worse, they said, is that it will mean even further overwhelming law enforcement and first responders.
Pre-existing conditions that could preclude someone from coverage or raise their premiums are not confined to rare and dangerous diseases. Cantwell’s office displayed a poster that listed a host of seemingly mundane ailments — acne, allergies, hypertension and migraines, for example — that could mean someone would be unable to receive health insurance. Without it, they’re bearing the cost of their health care alone.
Cantwell, who will seek a fourth U.S. Senate term in November, urged people to ask advocacy groups they are interested in, such as American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the National Alliance on Mental Illness and National Multiple Sclerosis Society, to call members of Congress and ask that they support the pre-existing conditions protection.