Thursday, December 29, 2011

After ObamaCares

It’s been 2 ½ weeks since the op-ed piece that I wrote for the Los Angeles Times, “Obamacare to the Rescue” was published, and I’m still getting emails from people, thanking me for outing myself as another middle class, uninsured American. Many people wrote to say, "Me too!", and best of all, some people wrote to say that they were now benefiting from PCIP, thanks to my piece. I already knew plenty of hard working, ordinary middle class people who could no longer afford their health insurance premiums. I outed myself awhile ago, locally, just to get people thinking………

"Your PTA president can no longer afford the monthly $1,500 in health insurance premiums. If it could happen to her, it could happen to you……”

Now I’m faced with everyone’s worst fear: I have cancer. After getting the dreaded news on November 7, I went into shock, intensified by the fact that I was uninsured, without any sort of financial safety net, because the recession had robbed my family and I of it all. Thankfully, through the fast thinking of my good friend and fellow nonprofit leader, Becky Constantino of Access Books, who did some online research, I found out I qualified for PCIP through the Affordable Care Act.

Before I knew I was sick, I had channeled all of my frustration into my own art, because that’s what artists do. And I’m still doing it, only now I’m writing and drawing about cancer and health insurance. I started writing about the recession’s impact on me and my little nonprofit a couple of years ago. I had managed to mitigate my resentment and heartache that whole time by making my own art, cartooning and writing. I made so much art that I got my own solo show in October. And I published a book of cartoons, ART by Spike Dolomite, taken from the latest cartoon strip that I created, all about my favorite subject: the arts. I have also managed to keep my nonprofit going during this time, but at a huge personal cost to my health. Keeping it going has been really, really stressful.

I’m not alone. I know of many other nonprofit leaders, who, out of true love for their work, and absolute commitment to their nonprofit’s mission, have managed to keep their nonprofits going during the worst economic time in American history since the Great Depression. People seeking help from various charities have popped up in record numbers, yet many people are turned away because nonprofits have either gone out of business or are beyond their capacity. The recession has kept people from giving to charity which has crippled all of them (ironically, Ron Paul, when asked during a debate about what should be done about a hypothetical, uninsured thirty year old man who shows up at an emergency room, about to die, first implied that he should just die because he made the poor choice of being irresponsible by not buying private health insurance, and then he said “Let the charities and churches take care of him”. HA! How much more out of touch can these politicians be? The charities can’t do it! The blatant indifference and ignorance of our politicians is frightening.)

I’ve thought a lot about my fellow nonprofit leaders and their employees over the past 2 ½ weeks. Most of them don’t have health insurance either. Small and mid-sized nonprofit organizations usually run on shoe string budgets, and can still make a dollar go a lot further than the average for-profit company can, because they are so passionate about the work that they do. They’re not in it for the money. Money is a necessity, it’s not what drives them. Their missions are what drives and sustains them, not their bottom lines, high salaries or hefty benefits.

Before the recession hit, we had developed a three year strategic plan wherein we had positioned ourselves to not only build and expand our infrastructure so that we could impact more kids and schools, but that we could be an arts education organization that everyone would want to work for, not just for our outstanding programs, but because we could offer benefits like health insurance. We were transitioning from a Stage 1 organization to a Stage 2 organization, and we were doing really, really well.

Then the rug got pulled out from underneath us. So much of what we had built came crashing down. The only thing that kept me from feeling like a personal failure was the perverted comfort I got from seeing it happen to everybody else around me. It was horrible. I was really hurt, because Arts in Education Aid Council has been like my third child. I felt like it had been violated and abused, yet I could do nothing about it. As a result, I got very, very angry. I couldn’t turn my back on it and all of the kids and adults who were depending on me, so I kept it going by taking a few steps back (into familiar Stage 1 territory), where I planned to nurse it back to health until the economy recovered, at a great personal and financial cost. One of the first thoughts that went through my mind after getting the cancer news was, “This thing is killing me”. I’ve heard other nonprofit leaders say the same thing.

For every fifty messages that I have received after that op-ed came out, thanking me for telling my story and letting people know about the Affordable Care Act’s PCIP (Pre-existing Insurance Plan), I have received one hateful, mean spirited, narrow minded message condemning me for being irresponsible and lazy. Some lambasted me for being an artist, accusing me of living in a fantasy world. I have been hammered for working for a nonprofit (assuming that nonprofits are not real businesses and that anybody who “works” for one doesn’t really “work” - if these people had any clue what it was like to start and run a nonprofit! I have never worked so hard in my life!). I have been labeled as a socialist (caring about other people doesn’t make me a socialist - look it up). Some people went way out of their way to Google me and dig stuff up on me to make me look like I was working for the Obama administration or I was running for political office or something. Some pointed out that since I am a self proclaimed activist, I must be up to something. Since when is “activist” a dirty word? Girl Scouts are activists, PTA parents are activists, church members are activists, anybody who stands up to right a wrong, speaks out, or goes out of their way to make their community a better place is an activist. Hell ya, I’m an activist!

A couple of these outspoken critics have accused me of being anti-American. The worst emails came from a few people who actually came right out and said they didn’t want to pay for my Obamacare and that they wished I would just die (to such critics: PCIP is an insurance plan. I pay premiums, deductibles and co-pays, it’s not like Obama bought me a car or paid off my mortgage, he’s saving my life. To these same critics: I have been paying into Medicare, Social Security, and Unemployment Insurance since I was 15 and have never received any benefits from any of these federally sponsored programs, but I am happy to contribute!)

Receiving such hate mail has made me acutely aware of how easy it is to manipulate and control the masses. Most of the hate speech directed towards me comes from a few sources – they are just repeated talking points and buzz words that have been designed to carry forth a message to get people to believe that Obamacare means socialism. They have been duped into fearing Obamacare when what they should really be afraid of is their own insurance companies and the politicians who benefit from them by receiving contributions and/or hefty returns on their personal investments in those companies. Americans have been duped into believing that health care is a product to be consumed, which means you can only be healthy if you can afford it. Health care is not a human right in the richest, most powerful nation on earth? Why do some people buy into this idea (literally), that health is a commodity that only the privileged and lucky can afford?

I would like to challenge everyone who has parroted certain talking points propagating the fear of socialism to investigate what they are repeating. Do your own research to fully understand what you have been handed and what you are helping to spread (some of the authors of some of the emails I have received have sparked the public education/arts education activist in me………..if America would only educate its citizens properly and encourage creativity, we wouldn’t produce so many ignorant, hateful, closed minded people!) While you are at it, research universal health care and ask yourself why we are one of the only developed countries that doesn’t have a universal health care plan. Common sense will give you the answer, but look it up anyway.

I turned my back on politics out of disgust, because I felt like our elected officials, on both sides of the aisle, were playing with my life. I felt like very few of them actually represented me, or cared about the common American. American politics was just a dirty, power game, and I and the rest of the 99% were just mere pawns. By turning my back on my elected officials, I made the irresponsible choice to disengage, which meant I missed important news that had a positive impact on my life, like what has already passed with the Affordable Care Act. Once a politically astute voter, I had cut myself off from the political process out of desperation and a desire to protect myself and my family. I’m not proud of that, but again, I wasn’t alone. A lot of other smart people I know did the same thing. Bad idea.

I have written several op-eds over the years, mostly pieces about arts education, or how much I can’t stand the No Child Left Behind Act, or why I think parental involvement is critical to public education. I’ve stirred up the local pot a couple of times by writing such pieces, so I’ve had some experience in creating public debate over my written words (the most positive feedback was I should run for school board, the most negative was I was just a clown), but I have never experienced anything quite like what happened with the “Obamacare to the Rescue” piece. By mid morning, the Atlantic’s wire had picked it up as one of their top five picks of the day. It was shared, tweeted, reposted, and republished in record numbers (and in different languages!) all around the world. People were talking about it on radio and TV, and Al Sharpton’s producers were trying to track me down all day, wanting me to go on his MSNBC show. This all happened on the same day that I was to see my oncologist for the first time to find out if I was going to live or die. It was the weirdest, scariest, freakiest day of my life. I only wish people cared this much about public education and arts education!

I was motivated to write that piece for two reasons: The first was I was so paralyzed by fear that I felt like the only way out of that scary dark place would be to get outside of myself by helping somebody else. Others in my same situation would surely benefit by hearing the good news about PCIP, because nobody had ever heard of it! The second reason was to make it up to President Obama, who I had campaigned for, but then turned my back on, because I didn’t get everything I wanted with the Affordable Care Act. After the last election, when voters stupidly voted against their own interests and the political theatre took over, I re-registered as an Independent to send the Democrats a message: Don’t assume you automatically get my vote, work for it! I had also blacked out the top of the “h” and the top of the question mark on my “got hope?” bumper sticker so that it read "got nope." As a well known public school parent and nonprofit leader driving around Los Angeles with that bumper sticker next to the other bumper sticker, “Support the Arts in Valley Schools”, I felt I needed to do more than take the “got nope” sticker off. I needed to replace it with something that I wanted every American to hear, “ObamaCares”. I never doubted that he did. I just got mad at him because he didn’t try to beat his enemies at their own game, by fighting back hard.

I am not an expert on the Affordable Care Act. But I will be by the time I am cured of cancer. I have committed to that. I want to help dispel the myths that have been propagated for political gain. Do I have a simple answer to the health insurance crisis in this country? No, I don't, but the Affordable Care Act is a start. I'm going to do my part to educate myself about all of this, and I challenge all of the doubters and critics to do the same. Do your own research. Do not be used by the few who benefit the most from all of this. And if my critics can't see themselves in me, then picture this: What if your mom or sister lost her job and health insurance and then couldn't find another job with benefits in this economy, and then found out she had breast cancer? What would you do? Would you let her die? Would you pay for the treatment yourself? Or would you tell her about PCIP? We can't afford to play around with this any longer. More and more people have run out of cash and are uninsured. More and more people are going to find themselves in my same situation. We're all a paycheck away from disaster.

If you are one of the millions of Americans out there, clinging to the ledge like I was, not wanting to look down as you ride this economic nightmare out, I'd like to ask you now to please come back and re-engage because, guess what? It could get worse.