AnnMarie Morse

A mother’s journey for reform

By AnnMarie Morse
October 22, 2009

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CANCER PATIENTS should never have to fight for their health care while they are fighting for their lives. Unfortunately, my daughter, Michelle, faced that predicament when she was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer in December 2003, one week shy of her 21st birthday.

Once we learned the aggressive and debilitating treatment Michelle would endure, her doctors recommended that she take a leave of absence from her full-time studies at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire. But the law at that time required dependents over the age of 19 to be enrolled in college full-time to remain on their parents’ health insurance policy, even if they were seriously ill or injured. Being thrown off our policy would have made it impossible for us to pay the COBRA premiums or to find affordable health care for Michelle, who faced the prospect of repeated denials by insurance plans that excluded pre-existing conditions such as cancer. I thought this was unfair, and I searched for options. At one point I was told, “If you don’t like it, then change the law.’’ And that’s what I did.

Working with the American Cancer Society’s New England Division, we advocated for the creation of a state law. And on June 22, 2006, Governor John Lynch of New Hampshire signed Michelle’s Law, into effect - allowing seriously ill or injured college students to take up to 12 months of leave without losing coverage under their parents’ policy. Then I partnered with the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network to advocate for making Michelle’s Law apply across the country. President Bush signed Michelle’s Law on Oct. 9, 2008, and it went into effect this month.

The law was too late for our Michelle; she passed away on Nov. 10, 2005. She paid the ultimate price when she made the tough choice to continue a full course load while undergoing treatment so she could keep her coverage. But I am comforted to know that no other family will have to walk in our shoes.

What I learned is that Michelle’s Law plugged one loophole, but so many people - especially cancer patients - continue to struggle with being able to afford the care that they need.

The good news is that the health care reform bills currently being debated by Congress represent a huge improvement for people fighting chronic diseases.

In their current form, the bills will ensure that no one will be denied coverage or charged a higher premium because of pre-existing medical conditions; place an increased emphasis on prevention; and eliminate annual and lifetime dollar caps on benefits. These are enormous steps forward. But the only way that we can benefit from this progress is for Congress to pass health care reform legislation this year.

Six years ago, I saw something very wrong with our health care system, and I set out to change it. Thankfully, starting tomorrow, college students will no longer suffer. But my fight continues. We cannot reduce death and suffering from cancer if our country does not improve access to quality, affordable health care for all Americans.

AnnMarie Morse is a teacher at Pembroke Academy in New Hampshire.

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