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Saturday, Dec 14 2013 08:07 PM

ROBERT PRICE: Uninsured folks still look a lot like her

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    Robert Price is The Californian's editorial page editor. Email him at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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By ROBERT PRICE, Californian editorial page editor

My mailbox is starting to fill up with Christmas cards again -- mass-produced letters from family members I forgot I had and photos of familiar people posing with children that can't possibly be who I think they are. But my favorite card, so far, is from a woman I've never met -- Cindy Weber of San Diego. She remembers me, though.

More to the point, she remembers a trying time in her life that I wrote about seven years ago.

Her daughter, a CSU Bakersfield water polo player named Beverly Weber, had been hospitalized at KMC with leukemia. She had no medical insurance, and why should she? She was young and uncommonly fit -- capable, as I wrote then, of elevating out of the water like a trained dolphin eyeing a bucket of herring. Youth and athleticism were on her side, so she had a reasonable chance of beating this disease. But who was going to pay for all of her treatments? She hadn't yet accrued enough hours to qualify for the health plan offered by the restaurant where she waited tables.

Situations like Beverly's ought to be rare, but 70,000 people in their 20s or 30s are diagnosed with some form of cancer each year. That's also the age group least likely to have qualified for an employer-sponsored health plan.

Seven years ago, if you were reading a newspaper article about medical insurance, you were probably reading the personal story of someone like Beverly who'd been victimized by one of the great, indefensible shortcomings of the U.S. system: vast numbers of uninsured, abrupt policy cancellations, lack of coverage for pre-existing conditions, or that only-in-America abomination, medical bankruptcy.

In 2007, the year of Beverly's hospitalization, 69 percent of Americans polled by Gallup said they believed it was the government's responsibility to make sure all Americans have health care coverage, and 81 percent were unhappy with the cost of U.S. health care. Those were the highest levels of dissatisfaction with the status quo recorded by Gallup during that decade -- or anytime since.

Now, of course, public opinion has shifted. In June 2010, 49 percent of Americans said the brand-new Affordable Care Act was a "good thing," with 46 percent opposed; today only 41 percent approve, with 51 percent opposed to the law.

It hasn't helped that the federal government's initial rollout of healthcare.gov was an unqualified disaster. Or that President Obama took some of his talking points on the ACA from Pinocchio. Or that some people just don't like anything associated with this president. (Last month Gallup found that 45 percent of respondents supported the health care law when it was referred to only by its official name, but "Obamacare" merited just 38 percent approval.) It turns out there's quite a difference between support for a theoretical plan that compels insurance companies to put health and wellness over profits and the reality of an incompetence-riddled, politics-tainted rollout.

That's why it's instructive to remember people like Beverly Weber -- young, invincible and, just two years after she was excluded from her mother's health coverage, very sick. There's a need for people-first, reasonably inclusive health coverage in this country, whether the system enacted into law three years ago is the right one or not.

As for our fallen Amazon:

"Well, the very good news is that Bev is doing great," Cindy Weber wrote. "She's not slowed down to miss a moment of life. She's trekked to many places in Southeast Asia and even taught English there for two years.

"She's back in San Diego tending bar but doesn't want to do that much longer, since that job was only something to get her to the next trek, whatever that may be. And, yes, she is still paying those medical bills every month. I suppose it's a small price to pay for getting back her life."

And with that, Cindy offered her thanks to "the good people of Bakersfield for helping out in so many ways."

Email Robert Price at rprice@bakersfield.com or tweet @stubblebuzz.

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