Man emerges as uninsured advocate after sick wife was denied coverage

Jack Conaway was laid off last year. A few weeks later, his wife was diagnosed with stage-three breast cancer. Then the Amherst couple lost their health insurance.

Faced with possibility of having to chip away at their savings to pay out of pocket for cancer drugs that cost $6,500 every three weeks, they scrambled to find a new plan.

Conaway, 66, called the Massachusetts health-care company that had insured him through work for more than a decade. They couldn’t sell him a plan because he no longer worked in the state.

Then he called a New Hampshire health-insurance company but was also turned down because of his wife’s “pre-existing condition.”

Conaway eventually found insurance to cover his wife’s medical bills through a state program for high-risk patients. But his frustration with the health-care system had already triggered a feeling that he needed to take action.

“They have these rules that prevent giving insurance to the people who need it most,” Conaway said. “I got really ticked off about this and thought something needed to be done.”

So Conaway contacted his congressmen and sent letters to the editor to newspapers all over the state. He got involved in politics and started meeting other people in New Hampshire who shared his frustrations.

Now, he’s emerged as an advocate for the uninsured in New Hampshire.
However, the issue of health care has become political for Conaway, as it has for many Americans.

If the name Jack Conaway sounds familiar, it’s because he appeared in campaign ads this fall for former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen’s successful bid for U.S. Senate. Shaheen, a Democrat, beat Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. John E. Sununu in the Nov. 4 election.

Conaway’s personal belief is that the country should adopt a single-payer national health-care system, much like Medicare but for all Americans. But that idea is controversial – with many believing it amounts to little more than socialism. Those who disagree with Conaway would say the answer lies in improvements to the current free-market system, such as allowing consumers to purchase health plans outside of their home state.

Although health-care reform is a national issue, a recent report by the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies suggests the state’s economic dependence on the health-care industry may be a barrier to reform.

Ten years from now, one in every nine jobs in New Hampshire could be in the health-care sector, Steve Norton, executive director of the center and study author, told New Hampshire Business Review last month. In order to control health-care costs, one of New Hampshire’s primary economic engines would have to be controlled, he said.

Since going public with his story and having more open conversations about health care with friends and acquaintances, Conaway has discovered there are plenty of people around him – from the woman that helps his wife clean the house to a state representative he met at a political event – who have similar stories.

“If you get people actually talking about this stuff, you’ll find out they’re all over the place,” Conaway said.

An estimated 10 percent of people in New Hampshire – about 130,000 total – are uninsured, according to the 2007 State Health Access Profile at Nationwide, the number of uninsured is about 47 million.

It was June 2007 when Conaway’s wife, Maryanne, found a lump on her breast. The estrogen-replacement drug she had taken for menopause thickened her breast tissue, making it tougher to detect abnormalities in a mammogram, he said. So by the time Maryanne Conaway’s cancer was discovered, it had spread into the lymph nodes.

In July 2008, Conaway found out his Cobra insurance – a federal plan that continues health benefits for laid-off workers – would be cancelled as of Sept. 1. The Cambridge, Mass., consulting company he had worked for discontinued its health coverage for employees, which ended the benefit.

Conaway was eligible for Medicare, but his wife was not yet 65. And she was in the middle of chemotherapy treatments. The bills up to that point – most of which had been covered by insurance – totaled $263,000, he said.

“We were really scared at this time,” Conaway said. “We said, ‘Oh my god. We’ve got to get someone to give us insurance.’ ”

Around the same time this past summer, Conaway got an e-mail from the AARP urging members to contact their congressmen about reducing the cost of health care for seniors, so he did. He got responses back from both senators, Judd Gregg and Sununu, explaining some of the health-care bills they supported. Then he wrote a second, longer letter to both explaining his family’s problems with health care.

Conaway became involved with the Shaheen campaign when he told his story at a political fundraiser. Someone who worked for the campaign asked him if he would be willing to appear in an advertisement.

Although he is happy with how the ad turned out, Conaway said he didn’t feel that his whole story could be explained in a 30-second spot. So for that reason, he plans to continue to speak out, he said.

Maryanne Conaway had a successful mastectomy and has now finished chemotherapy.

For just her coverage now, Conaway is paying about double what he did for both of them while employed. But he is just grateful they were lucky enough to find coverage, he said.

Otherwise, Conaway said: “We would have seen most of our savings eaten up by health-care costs.”

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  1. Arlene B. Trainor on November 19, 2008 at 8:22 pm

    As an RN for many years, I wish that I could say that the story about the Conways was the first of that type that I have heard. Instead I have heard so many that I am outraged. For politicians to continue to boast that our American- U.S. way is the best is an outright lie. The working poor are the ones that I have seen the most neglected by our policies. I agree with the California Nurses that a single payor system should be our goal.