Commentary: This is what happens when health insurance is a privilege

Can you make someone care when they’ve had no personal experience with how devastating something can be? Until you stare a health crisis in the face without insurance, I guess it’s hard to picture that reality. So, what does “people will die without Obamacare” mean? Well, I can tell you.

My boyfriend Ryan Noriega died from cancer in 2012. He died after President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law but before it was implemented in Texas.

Ryan was an artist and an art teacher; his job didn’t provide or afford him health insurance.

Months before his death, he complained of persistent back pain. The only way to make a proper diagnosis would have been with an MRI, which was way too expensive to consider. Instead, we visited an after-hours clinic, which we could afford but where staff lacked the expertise and tools to properly detect Ryan’s condition. After X-rays were taken, Ryan was told that he had scoliosis.

The false diagnosis was followed by agonizing, futile physical therapy. I watched him hold his arms in raised positions against the wall in the hallway, trying very hard to be better. The possibility of Ryan having cancer never crossed our minds — and medical professionals were not stepping in with any warning bells. Why? No MRI. Everyone was puzzled.

After six months of pain, we decided the cost of an MRI could no longer be a factor. However, by then the MRI results showed it was far too late for him. His spine was collapsing with cancer. The moment we heard that news, a lifetime of heartbreak began.

I was alone with him in a hospital room the night he began to die. I yelled for help and was ushered out while reminding the medical staff that his spine would crack under the pressure of CPR. I wondered if he was conscious enough to know what was happening.

He was 28.

People avoid getting the care they need when they need it because of cost. The Affordable Care Act wasn’t perfect, but it was a start in holding insurance companies, drugmakers and human greed accountable. Though the high cost of drugs is something to address, it is not a reason to dismantle the whole ACA system. The cost of Ryan’s treatment and his death still fell on taxpayers. Sure, he might have died anyway with earlier treatment; but don’t tell me there was no value in allowing him to maintain a level of dignity through it all.

That’s what happens when not everyone has access to health insurance.

Did Ryan’s death happen for a reason or because God needed him back? No. He died because he was an artist — an honest job that didn’t allow him the luxury of medical insurance.

Still, his life mattered.

Health care should be a human right, not a privilege. Thoughts and prayers didn’t help save my boyfriend’s life. But the doctors that would have been easier to see with medical insurance could have — or at least, they could have given Ryan more time with us.

Hayden works as a software developer and volunteers as a co-founder of the activism group Those Texas Women.

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