The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
The past three weeks have been incredibly busy for me as I’ve wrapped up my creative writing class in Brooklyn and prepared for my annual trip to Portugal. I still have a pile of things to do before I leave tomorrow night: sending my students’ poems and stories to be printed for the class book, mailing back their drafts and a copy of a book I translated for Charlesbridge (due out in summer 2018), buying socks and shampoo, packing. A daylong downpour and flash flood warning isn’t helping matters.
While I’m looking forward to this trip, I leave at a very different point in the histories of both countries, one that has brought me back to my first traditionally-published YA novel, Gringolandia, and my memories of the friends who inspired me to write it. To me, yesterday represented a potential watershed in the history of the United States, with the vote by the House of Representatives to roll back the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid and subsidies for purchasing health insurance as well as Essential Health Benefits and protection for pre-existing conditions. Although the ACA’s passage was controversial with the country almost evenly divided, its provisions have proven popular. Among my writer colleagues, it has been a life-saver, allowing many of them to leave soul-sapping jobs that they’d taken for the medical benefits and others to access medical care for the first time. Eliminating ACA will force hundreds, if not thousands, of my colleagues out of the profession. Were it not for my husband’s job, I would be in an equally difficult position; due to my age and disability, I would not be able to find a full-time job with benefits and would have to forego insurance until I qualified for Medicare — unless it, too, were eliminated as Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has pledged to do.
Like many Americans, I remember the old days before ACA. In 1990 my husband changed jobs, and we experienced a six-month gap in coverage. I’d become pregnant, which the new insurer called a pre-existing condition. (Since then, insurers have considered simply being a woman of childbearing age a pre-existing condition and charged much higher rates.) We saw that an uncomplicated pregnancy would cost us at least $12,000 out of pocket at a time that money was tight for us, with moving expenses and the costs of closing down my small business in Wisconsin that could not be moved. We talked about terminating the pregnancy, something I’d never imagined I’d have to do for financial reasons. We’d played by the rules, but we were young and inexperienced and never realized that the new employer had these rules and our insurance had lapsed. In the end, we negotiated with the medical group, paying out-of-pocket for a reduced schedule of prenatal visits until employer insurance kicked in a month before our daughter was born. Because I had fewer visits and tests than recommended, the doctor expressed concern about her being undersized and suggested an ultrasound. I refused, and she said, “Well, maybe it’s just a small baby. You and your husband are small.” (She was a small baby and still is petite, 26 years later.)
My story is nothing compared to the life-or-death stories of millions of others who stand to lose access to affordable health care if this bill passes the Senate. And that brings me to the watershed moment, why this vote is so historically significant. There are few examples in the history of the United States of a right or major benefit granted that has then been taken away — and with such levels of cruel celebration. The most significant instance of a withdrawal of a right was the abrogation of racial justice at the end of Reconstruction, when the federal government allowed a resurgent Southern aristocracy to seize the lands of freed Black families, drive African Americans from political power (the Wilmington Coup of 1898 being just one example), and reestablish slavery-like conditions through the criminal injustice system and Jim Crow legislation. The end of Reconstruction represented the imposition of a dictatorship upon a portion of the population — those with darker skin. African Americans became what journalist Chris Hayes calls “a colony in a nation.”
According to various polls, approximately 20% support the measure the House passed. These supporters include hard-core Trump supporters seeking any “victory” (particularly one that erases the legacy of his Black predecessor) as well as uber-wealthy individuals who will reap massive tax cuts with the end of federal subsidies for Medicaid and for lower-income purchasers of insurance on the exchanges. As Sarah Kendzior, who has studied Russia, Turkey, and other recent authoritarian regimes, tweeted yesterday, “Bill is devastating in its own right, but also ominous. You don’t pass something this unpopular thinking there will be free and fair elections.” In other words, those who voted to harm millions of people consider themselves immune from electoral consequences. Perhaps they believe the billionaires’ campaign donations will save them. Or gerrymandering and the outsize influence of small rural states, which in recent elections has given the GOP both the Presidency and Congress despite having fewer votes. One wonders, especially with neo-Nazis among the White House advisors, if they have more ominous measures up their sleeves.
Until 1974 Portugal lived under a brutal authoritarian regime that censored speech and the press; subordinated women under a strict religious code; imprisoned, exiled, or assassinated dissenters; and conducted wars that drained the country’s coffers and led many young men to flee the country. Today, Portugal is a principal defender of human rights and cooperation among nations, as exemplified by the new UN Secretary General António Guterres. When I leave tomorrow, I will travel to a freer country than my own, but my heart will remain with those I’ve left behind, hoping they can stay safe and healthy. And when I come back in June, I will have to adjust to living with more fear again, knowing also that I will have to continue the struggle to hold onto what we once took for granted.