WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell said Wednesday that millions of Americans are living their lives on the edge of a fiscal abyss because of insecurity over medical insurance.
At a press conference with first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, Mitchell called for passage of national health care reform after listening to the struggles faced by families with critically ill children.
One of them was Ben Merrill, the 14-year-old son of a Portsmouth-Kittery Naval Shipyard worker who suffers from spina bifida, a congenital defect of the spine that often results in paralysis.
In 1991, the Kennebunkport youth became a quadriplegic. He has undergone surgery 26 times and requires private-duty nursing and many other services.
Mitchell said that the out-of-pocket costs for Ben’s treatment have been so high, other members of the Merrill family have been forced to forgo routine medical help.
Ben’s treatment is covered now by his father’s shipyard health insurance policy. But that could change because defense cuts are forcing layoffs at the Navy facility, Mitchell said.
Because of Ben’s pre-existing medical condition, it would be difficult for the Merrills to purchase private medical insurance.
“Ben’s story demonstrates why the enactment of a comprehensive health reform bill cannot wait until next year,” Mitchell said. “Thousands of families whose children have serious medical problems live in daily fear that they will wake up the next morning and find themselves without health care insurance.”
“How could it be that everyone doesn’t share your concern?” Mrs. Clinton reacted. “Why can’t we see that we are all in this together?”
The Clinton health reform bill would bar insurance companies from banning pre-existing conditions and provide health benefits to the 39 million uninsured Americans.
“There isn’t anything as important as taking care of our children,” the first lady said. The press conference was sponsored by HealthRight, a nonprofit group that supports the Clinton plan.
Another participant, Stephanie Carlson of Bountiful, Utah, said her husband’s student health insurance company dropped them shortly after their son, Travis, was born deaf, blind and with paralyzed vocal cords. He needed surgery to help him breathe.
Carlson said her husband, an engineer, had to seek a low-paying job to become eligible for Medicaid, a health insurance program that aids the poor.
Cheryl Gresek of Ipswich, Mass., said her 7-year-old boy, Daniel, was just 1 week old when he went into cardiac arrest and was diagnosed with a heart defect that needed surgery. He has had several operations and the family’s insurance company raised premiums from $198 a month to $1,375 a month.
She and her husband own a small restaurant and tried to find other insurance, but could not because of their son’s condition. The couple said they had to drop their son from the policy to continue covering employees.