Fighting for Health Care Reform while Battling Cancer
Policy + Politics

Fighting for Health Care Reform while Battling Cancer

After seven surgeries for breast cancer, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz thinks of herself as the poster girl for health care reform.

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There was a time when Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla.,  stood full force with other liberals behind a health care overhaul plan that included a public insurance plan to compete with private insurers.

After the House passed its version of health care reform last fall, Wasserman Schultz was among those who insisted that any compromise with the Senate would have to include a robust public option similar to the one in the House Democratic legislation. But as Congress and the Obama administration move towards a final resolution of the bill, Wasserman Schultz has reluctantly fallen into step with the Democratic leadership’s strategy of passing the Senate version without a public option, and then working out differences in a separate “reconciliation” package.

Her decision was largely the result of political necessity. As chief deputy whip of the House majority, Wasserman Schultz had little choice but to go along with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s end-game strategy. But the issue became more than just politics for Wasserman Schultz after a two-year battle with breast cancer. That frightening, life-threatening experience left her convinced that a major expansion of health care coverage was essential, regardless of the final shape of the legislation.

“My experience with breast cancer brought into much sharper focus the need for health care reform.  I got hit in the face in the midst of the debate over health reform when it occurred to me that I am the fate of the uninsurable,” Wasserman Schultz said in a recent interview with The Fiscal Times.  “It was a real eye opener that if I lost my job tomorrow I’d be in trouble.”

The 43-year-old mother of three found a breast lump in December 2007 during a self-examination, just two months after her first mammogram. Since then, she has undergone seven cancer-related surgeries, all during congressional recesses.  She decided to have both breasts and both ovaries removed after she tested positive for a gene mutation increasing her risk of recurrence of both breast and ovarian cancers. She kept her battle with the disease mostly a secret even from her children until her doctors gave her a clean bill of health and she went public with her news last March.

“When you have three beautiful children like I have, there’s nothing more motivating and nothing that makes you work harder to get better than wanting to spend your life seeing the joys of their successes,” she said.

If she had had to face her illness without the benefit of the gold-plated health insurance plan that all members of Congress receive, the medical bills would have been crushing, Wasserman Schultz said.

“The experience made it clear for me how essential it is that we adopt comprehensive health care reform sooner rather than later and prevent health insurance companies from dropping your coverage,” she said.

According to Census Bureau data from last September, 46.3 million Americans, or 15.4 percent, were uninsured in 2008.  And a 2009 Harvard study found that medical problems contributed to 62 percent of all personal bankruptcies filed in the U.S. in 2007.

The battle over whether to create a government-style insurance entity as part of overall health care legislation has raged for well over a year. Proponents contended that having a public option would create more competition in the insurance industry and help to contain or drive down insurance premiums. But Republicans and many moderate Democrats argued against that approach, saying it would be the first step towards a government takeover of the health care industry. The Obama administration long favored a public option, but backed down in the face of strong opposition in the Senate.

Last January, while some liberals still held out hope for a public insurance option, Wasserman Schultz declined to sign a letter drafted by House Democrats Jared Polis of Colorado and Chellie Pingree of Maine, urging Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to consider including the public option as part of the reconciliation process. 

She said she still wants to see more details of what will be included in a final reconciliation bill. Her main concern now is how the Senate version would be financed. She wants to be sure the proposals for increasing Medicare payroll taxes on upper-income individuals and couples, and on high-cost, employer-provided insurance plans doesn’t hurt the middle class.

“As far as I understand, the reconciliation provisions would resolve my concerns and I would be comfortable voting for the bill," Wasserman Schultz said.