It all happened very fast. Carrie Denny was just a few weeks into a new job as a nurse in an orthopedic surgery wing when she was laid up with bilateral knee injuries. In the course of routine testing, doctors discovered a tumor on her thyroid. They removed it, but came back with a cancer diagnosis.
Too sick to work and facing the end of her Cobra benefits from a previous job, Denny, who is 42 and lives in Tennessee, turned to the Affordable Care Act for an insurance plan. “I found one,” she told me when I first interviewed her back in January. “There was no such thing as a pre-existing condition.”
That may not be the case for much longer. Last week, House Republicans passed a bill that allows states to opt out of the mandate barring insurers from charging sick people more for coverage.
Denny knew this might be coming. “My fear going forward is if I lose my coverage or anything happens with pre-existing conditions, I won’t be insurable,” she said at the time. “And that is terrifying because... it’s been only a year and a half since my no-evidence-of disease report.”
Getting sick changed a lot for Denny, including how she viewed the government’s role in providing for people who need it.
“Before this happened to me, I was a card-carrying member of the NRA, a card-carrying Republican. I thought universal health care was the wrong idea,” she said. “I ended up having to go on disability, on food stamps. It made me realize these programs assist people, and we need to de-stigmatize them. It changed me, and I’m grateful for that. I feel like I’m much more human.”
I reached out to Denny after the House vote to talk about her life now and the possibility of losing the protections that helped save her life. Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
How did you feel watching the vote?
Like I was watching a ping-pong ball going back and forth. It was a punch in the gut to see that it had passed—and how closely it passed. I was devastated. Rationally, I know that this is just a first step and that a version will need to move through the Senate next. There is still time. But I also know that this means that there are people in government who are happy to just cut access to healthcare for millions upon millions of Americans, myself included, in exchange for tax breaks for the wealthy.
Can you make any sense of that?
It feels so heartless and cruel, so unnecessary. That is what bothers me the most, their willingness to do it regardless of what their constituents wanted or need. On a personal level, I posted to Facebook the news that the bill passed and something like, “Shoutout to the House for effectively signing my death warrant.” A friend of mine replied that no one would die without access to healthcare. [Ed. note: This is also a view shared by members of Congress.]
I just thought, Wow, you just really don’t get it. Of course people are going to die without access to healthcare. And she said, No, that’s what emergency rooms are for. People like me with chronic health conditions—these are not emergencies. They are lifelong health conditions. My cancer is not curable, it is only manageable. That means every year I have full body scans, blood work. I take something like 22 medications every month. All of this needs to be paid for. How can I pay for it when I draw less than $1,200 a month on disability? How will I afford it if I have to go shopping for insurance coverage that can deny me because of my pre-existing condition? Of course people are going to die.
Why do you think some people are resistant to talking about healthcare in terms of life and death when those are obviously the stakes for so many people?
I lost my health coverage two weeks after I was diagnosed with cancer. I was only able to get coverage because of the clause about pre-existing conditions. Had I gone in with a cancer diagnosis, I would have been bankrupt or dead or both. I could not have been treated at the emergency room. Having been a nurse and working in healthcare—I’ve seen the people who need help and can’t afford it. I’ve been one of those people. I am not being dramatic, I am being realistic.
You told me when we last spoke that your illness and experiences under the Affordable Care Act changed your politics. Are there people in your life whose views may have been changed after watching you go through that? Being sick and out of work, but still having the things you needed when you needed them?
This is a very, very, very red state. All very Republican, all very conservative. My own parents are conservative. They have been tremendously supportive of me, personally, in my situation. But even my father told me he was happy that the bill had passed. I asked him if he understood what it could mean if I lost my health coverage, and he said that he still felt it was the right move for the country.
There’s a disconnect.
I’m not willing to sacrifice my relationship with my parents in the name of politics, but there is an element of hurt. But there are also friends in my life who have been lifelong Republicans and my story made them shift how they think about this issue. That gives me hope.
Do you worry about the future?
This doesn’t change the fact that I plan the rest of my life as though I will have the rest of my life. I can’t get mired down by fear. But I do worry, I do worry. I live with the expectation that I will have a reoccurrence at some point. It’s common in the first five years after a thyroid cancer diagnosis, and I am in year three. I am in that watchful waiting period where right now I am waiting for the other shoe to drop. That makes the next two years critical to me for very real reasons, not just monitoring this bill or the midterm elections.