Maine man hopes story can change health care

Posted July 02, 2009, at 11:06 p.m.

When carpenter Greg Douglas rolled over his pickup truck, his toolbox hit him and smashed his ribs and collarbone. After a month in the hospital, the medical bills hit him even harder, totaling $165,000.

Douglas is among thousands of people now telling their stories on videos, ads and Web sites on both sides of the health care debate.

He said he was drawn into political advocacy after neighbors in Harpswell, Maine, raised $3,000 toward his hospital bills with a church dinner and collection cans in stores.

Douglas said he may not understand the intricacies of President Obama’s top domestic priority, but he knows he wants affordable health care for everyone, so nobody has to beg.

“People aren’t standing up to be counted,” Douglas said, explaining why he allowed his name to be used in a political YouTube video. “I just hope I can help somebody else.”

The “Begging for Change” video, posted on YouTube by Maine’s Service Employees union, depicts fundraising efforts on behalf of Douglas and other people with crushing medical bills.

It includes shots of a yard-sale sign with photos of a sick baby on it, and a poster for a fundraising dinner that reads, “You Gotta Eat Anyway, Have a Heart and Help out a Neighbor.” Similar snapshots fade in and out while a musician sings the “Begging for Change Healthcare Blues.”

Foes of expanding government-run health care also have stories of real people on YouTube and in advertisements. Ads by Conservatives for Patients’ Rights feature patients like Katie Brickell, a British citizen, who says she was denied a Pap smear that could have saved her from cervical cancer.

“In all likelihood, I only have a couple of years,” Brickell says in a YouTube version of her story. “I feel the National Health Service has let me down.”

Voters and lawmakers may be moved by the stories or turned off by what they see as emotional pandering. But in the weeks to come, the airwaves and blogosphere are sure to be populated by real people telling what happened to them when they got sick.

Obama’s political operation, Organizing for America, put up a Web site last week where people can post their own health care tales and read the stories of others. The site says: “When the lobbyists for the status quo tell Congress to hold back, your personal story will give them the courage to press forward.”

What’s lost in the storytelling is policy nuance and the difficult question of how to finance an expansion of health coverage, said health economist Devon Herrick of the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis, a research group that favors private solutions over government involvement. The real-people tactic, whether used by the left or the right, can distract from tough debate, he said.

“We can’t have policy by anecdote,” Herrick said. Stories of people who have fallen through the cracks “have an oversized influence on the debate even as they obscure the greater question of what will help most people. Even a policy that does the greatest good may still have people who fall through the cracks.”

Families USA started its story bank before President Bill Clinton’s 1993 failed attempt to retool the health care system. The group now has a database of thousands of people with stories to tell.

In 1993, the real stories could not compete with doubts raised by a fictional couple, Harry and Louise, who at a kitchen table asked questions about the Clinton plan in ads financed by the health insurance industry. This time, it will be different, said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA.

“I ultimately believe real stories are more effective than using actors in some dramatization,” he said.

This week, Families USA and the drug lobby group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America launched a multimillion-dollar ad campaign using real people, including business owners.

“I want to provide health care to my employees,” said Maryland small-business owner Mark Derbyshire in one TV ad. “They deserve it. But it’s getting harder and harder and harder to do.”

Derbyshire owns a moving and storage company started by his father in 1956. He employs 35 workers in Aberdeen, Md., and covers all of them and their families. But he said he will soon give in to financial pressure and offer only individual coverage, not family coverage, to new hires.

“My role is to tell how serious it is,” he told The Associated Press. “There’s not a businessman out there who would disagree that the employer-based health coverage system is collapsing.”

In Maine, Douglas’ wife, Pam, is a waitress, lobster supplier and seller of Christmas wreaths. Like others in their coastal community, she and Greg work several jobs to make ends meet.

“We’re working people. We don’t expect someone to give us something,” she said. They have health insurance through the hotel and restaurant company that employs her as a waitress. But the company changed insurance carriers recently and one carrier balked at paying Greg’s claim for 29 days in the hospital after the truck accident, leaving the couple owing $165,000.

“So the town put on this benefit,” Pam Douglas said. “They planned this big benefit dinner, and they put posters out everywhere.”

It was difficult for the couple to accept charity, but they were touched by the support. “Nobody had ever seen so many people. The lines were out to the road,” she said. “I just cried the whole time.”

“We should not have to be begging for health care in this country,” said Arlene Holt Baker, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO. The union recently collected 6,000 stories of personal health care experiences from people who took an online survey. Some of them went to Washington last week to lobby Congress.

“The stories are what moves people,” Holt Baker said. “This is the way we’ll get this health care reform we so desperately need.”

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