A version of this article first appeared on April 1, 2015 on Utah's Poor.
“Great. I'm so excited to pay lazy people's medical bills!” That was the Facebook status update a friend of mine left the day after Barack Obama was elected President of the United States in November of 2008. Coincidentally, it was also one week after I had been diagnosed with end stage kidney failure and told I would need a transplant. The kidney disease, the surgeries I had and the recovery from them was full of many different kinds of pain that one of my surgeons aptly described as “feeling like you've been hit by a truck.” But none was more painful than being called lazy because I was uninsured and needed help.
In fairness, it should be pointed out that the friend in question emphasized that he didn't mean me. No, of course I wasn't one of those people. In fact, I've been told over and over again by people who repeat the stereotypes about lazy welfare frauds that I'm exactly the kind of person the system should be helping. I wasn't some deadbeat that wasn't working, I was working part-time for the Clark Planetarium and as a part-time actor, going to college part-time, and was a full-time care provider for the two greatest kids in the world—my niece and nephew. My sister and her husband both had to work full-time to support their family, so I was living in their basement and helping pay rent while taking care of the kids. The problem is that while in these people's eyes some like me is the exception, experience and statistic show us that I'm pretty average. But it's a lot easier to oppose programs such as Medicaid or Governor Gary Herbert's Healthy Utah plan if we tell ourselves that the people they're helping don't deserve them. That's really the entire basis of stereotyping: it's a way of justifying hating or turning our backs on people.
Because I felt that everyone should have the sort of live-saving access to healthcare that I had, I became an active part of the campaign for Healthy Utah. My activism has primarily taken the form of a documentary film called Enitled to Life, in which I told the stories of some of the tens of thousands of Utahns caught in the coverage gap between traditional Medicaid and premium assistance under the Affordable Care Act. I've continued to document and share the stories of these people, not just in Utah, but also in North Carolina and Florida. In over a year and a half of actively searching out people with stories to tell, I have yet to encounter one single person who was uninsured because they didn't want to work. But I've encountered many whose situations made mine seem easy.
Take my good friend and fellow activist Stacy Stanford, a college student who has started her own online business, and also volunteers with many causes to help disabled people such as herself. She's easily one of the most intelligent, hardest working and most determined people I've ever known. She's also suffering from a neurodegenerative disorder which has put her in a wheelchair. And she can't even get it diagnosed so she can qualify for traditional Medicaid because she can't afford the necessary specialty doctor visits. While Utah does (as Healthy Utah opponents in the legislature keep pointing out) have a strong charity care network, it provides zero options for someone like Stacy who needs specialty care. Free clinics don't give MRIs, and programs like PCN (Utah's Primary Care Network, an integral component of Rep. Jim Dunnigan's poorly named “Utah Cares” alternative plan) doesn't cover them. So Stacy is left gritting her teeth and working and going to school through pain and illness that even I, a chronically ill person myself, can't really imagine. Nobody in history has ever worked hard enough to earn the right to call her “lazy”.
Or take Melanie Soules. Melanie was a CEO and team leader for a local real estate company when she started suffering from symptoms such as hot, burning patches on her forehead and what she described as “hot oil flowing underneath her skin”. She developed vision and memory problems, and eventually lost her job, which left her and her two children uninsured. Melanie suffered from trigeminal neuralgia, and was unable to get access to healthcare. By far the happiest moment of my time as an activist was when I saw Melanie at a meeting and, for the first time since I'd met her, she looked well. I still cry just thinking about that moment. Melanie managed to get employment which gave her insurance coverage and allowed her to receive treatment. But she had to wait a year to get it. Did she deserve that? Was she “lazy” because she tried to keep working but the illness caught up with her?
Sure, people may say, but what about the person who chooses not to work and has 12 kids and uses their SNAP to buy lobster? I can't guarantee you these people don't exist just because I haven't met them. But I can tell you that it's a proven fact that they're in the minority. Research from the University of Utah determined that 65% of those in the coverage gap work at least part time. 85% of familes have at least one working adult. Under Healthy Utah, these people would be eligible for the healthcare coverage they need. Under the alternative plan proposed by Dunnigan and passed by the Utah House of Representatives, 40% of them would be only be eligible for a version of PCN, which we've already seen wouldn't help people like Stacy or Melanie. My friend Clare Richardson, who also suffers from chronic illnesses, explained to me that PCN wouldn't even cover treatment for her ingrown toenail. To claim this is comparable to the sort of care offered by Healthy Utah is so absurd it would be comical if it weren't so tragic. Dunnigan admitted to the House Business & Labor Committee that PCN “isn't a Cadillac plan”, but as I told them shortly after, it isn't even a Pinto plan.
Most poor people aren't poor by choice, and to portray them as such as ridiculous as to claim that people choose to get sick. But it's a way to deny compassion to our fellow human beings without feeling guilty about it. We can even be self-righteous about it and claim we're sticking up for good values. But the people who are suffering, and those of us who work with them and love them, know that simply isn't true.