Thursday afternoon, the House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on the American Health Care Act—the Trump-era response to Obama’s Affordable Care Act. The vote is close, and a lot of the political news this week has focused on the last-minute deals and old-fashioned salesmanship that Schoolhouse Rock forgot to mention when it taught us how a bill becomes a law.
So far the debate on Capitol Hill—unlike the conversations taking place in town halls—has been abstract and detached. But for the millions of Americans living with the uncertainty and inevitable consequences of these decisions, these numbers are deeply personal. Congress is arguing about their health, and the stress of it all is making them sick.
Get TalkPoverty In Your Inbox
Alaskan small-business owners Colleen Mondor and her husband, Ward, are two of the 24 million Americans who stand to lose coverage if the new bill passes. They have not had a single night of uninterrupted sleep since 2005—that’s when their then-3-year-old son was diagnosed with a rare form of Type 1 diabetes that requires them to wake up to check his blood sugar.
Colleen and Ward are both cancer survivors, and before the Affordable Care Act they got their insurance through a $1,000 per month high-risk pool that required them to pay $10,000 out-of-pocket before their coverage kicked in. They have the coverage they need now, but the years of fighting to get and stay insured has taken a physical toll on their health.
“Luckily, nothing bad like the return of cancer, but we both experience intense, hallucinatory migraines and severe exhaustion,” Colleen says. “I think about stress all the time… I never thought as much about insurance before but now feel dread and a sick feeling in my stomach every year when we receive the letter to re-enroll. Until you face the threat of losing or not being able to get quality insurance, you just don’t know.”
The Republicans’ new health care bill will usher in insurance plans that will cost more but cover less, forcing millions of Americans to choose between the care they can afford and the care they need. When a family lacks the security of quality health insurance, it too often leads to greater financial burdens, instability, and increased stress levels that produce poorer health outcomes. That will add to the strain of an already stressed-out nation, jeopardizing the health and well-being of folks who can least afford to be sick.
Though its toll is often poorly recognized and underestimated, the cumulative wear and tear of stress leads to an increased risk of illnesses like high blood pressure, depression, and heart disease. It even accelerates aging and may cause premature death. That’s compounded by any unhealthy, inadequate coping habits, like smoking or substance abuse, which make the harmful effects even worse.
As the gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen, individuals and families struggling to maintain financial security are being exposed to unprecedented stress levels, and the impact is grave. People of color and individuals struggling with poverty, who bear the brunt of the growing inequality, are also absorbing the impact of the deadly stress that comes with it.
President Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress are pushing a health care plan that casts millions of already chronically-stressed Americans—like Colleen Mondor and her family—into an even more dire state of anxiety as they struggle to find new coverage (let alone good, affordable insurance). But right now, the House of Representatives has a choice: They can move forward with their destructive health care law, or they can reject it and develop a plan that doesn’t threaten the health care—and actual, physical health—of millions of people.
As for Colleen, she’s also hoping for something that should have been present all along.
“Empathy is the major missing component in this conversation,” she says. “I always say: you are fifteen minutes away from being me.”