Who Tells the Dead Patient Stories Now?

by Donna Smith –

Since the health insurance reform bill passed this past spring, you’d think we suddenly stopped having American patients die and suffer unimaginable horror at the hands of the corporate owned and operated healthcare business system in the United States. No one tells the stories. The reality is that patients were props, and they just aren’t needed as props any more.

An estimated 45,000 preventable deaths occurring in these United States annually due to the lack of access to appropriate healthcare marches on. That does not account for those dead from other preventable causes like medical error. 45,000 every year. That’s 123 dead every day. Today’s dead: 123. Have you seen that reported anywhere? Yesterday’s dead? 123. Any reports? Tomorrow’s dead? 123. Is anyone trying to save those pending dead?

Though more Americans die preventable deaths every day without access to healthcare right here at home than die in weeks on any foreign battlefield, no one is searching for them in the wilderness of greed and profit-driven medicine. No one needs their painful realities right now.

123 Dead today.

Patient stories were used as props by elected officials, mainstream and alternative media members and groups, advocacy groups and think tanks. Relatives of dead patients made especially good fodder for the debates. Moms and dads of dead kids were prime targets to stand up on stages, sit at witness tables and have their names and details of the loved-one’s death shared with the world. Cancer patients who could not access care were pretty valuable too. If they could still stand, think and talk, cancer patients made for great photo-ops for all and better fundraising tools for others.

123 dead tomorrow.

Some may say this is to be understood as the nation has moved on to other issues following the passage of the health insurance bail-out bill – we are now worried about jobs, the oil spill, the Arizona immigration bigotry, the leak of documents on the Afghan war. All critical issues to be sure. Some may add that we’ll just have to wait and see if those numbers drop in 2014 or 2016 or 2018 as parts of the health insurance reform bill unfold

123 dead yesterday. Those insistent dead just don’t stop dying. They aren’t waiting for a third political party to emerge. They are the dead and the dying.

Patients are dying and suffering every single day in larger numbers even as the weeks of recession roll on and medical providers become even more tightly controlled about uncompensated and undercompensated care – meaning they are protecting their bottom lines too and uncompensated care is the term used for patients who come without any means of payment or with inadequate means of payment. Patients are suffering more, not less. Payments are demanded up front. Patients cannot pay the thousands or even the hundreds required for treatment. More death, not less.

123 people today will not die pretty, gentle, fade away in their sleep deaths with tearful loved ones at their sides. They may have spent weeks or even months begging for someone to treat them. They may have been working even weeks ago or days ago but unable to get past the co-pay and deductibles of their insurance to get early treatment and unable to slack off for even one moment on their jobs lest an opportunistic employer decide to lay people off based on unspoken measures of value, like use of sick time for doctor visits. They will die after arguments and struggles with those they leave behind as the financial pressures mounted and their illnesses deepened.

I searched every news outlet page I could find to see if anyone was reporting on yesterday’s dead. No one did. 123 people died, and few people even noticed their passing. I searched to see if anyone was reporting the impending slaughter of 123 innocents in the United States today, and no one is reporting on it.

Along with the 45,000 dead, we allowed 700,000 patients and their families to go belly-up financially in 2009. In the U.S., medical crisis leads to more than 50 percent of the personal bankruptcies (and of those patients, 75 percent had health insurance). So, as we saw personal bankruptcy filings rise 31.9 percent overall in 2009, we also added more patients and their families into our deadbeat files. Even if those folks get well physically, we’ll punish them forever for having gone broke. Bankruptcy bruised credit takes years to repair.

123 dead today. 1,917 going broke today in the midst of medical crisis. In this nation. Yet no one reports. No one.

The one thing I know for sure is that the patient horror stories were certainly an integral part of the fuel that moved any debate on health reform to take place at all. The dead and dying made for a better frame for press pieces than simply selling health reform as a way to bail out the private, for-profit health insurance industry and bolster the medical-industrial complex overall. Patients are necessary in this system and in the debate only to the extent that without them you cannot run the engines of medical profit.

123 dead. 1,917 in financial collapse. Homes lost. Futures torn apart. And no one reports.

There are those who still clamor for real transformation of the U.S. healthcare system from the for-profit model to a social insurance model like extending and improving Medicare for all. But even many of those people have somehow decided that it’s only the money arguments that need to be made – only the profit-takers who need convincing with the language of more profit and fortunes still to be made.

I disagree. I think someone must have the courage to keep reporting the healthcare war dead. In fact, I believe their faces and their names ought to be more prominent as we go forward as measures of what we are allowing to be done to our fellow human beings in this nation.

123 dead yesterday. 123 dead today. 123 yet to die tomorrow. Since the passage of the health insurance reform bill in March 2010, 14,670 American patients are dead. And no one spoke their names. The day we become a nation that turns its back on that much death and suffering is the day we have lost much more than a political battle — we’ve lost our collective soul.

Donna Smith is a community organizer for National Nurses United (the new national arm of the California Nurses Association), National Co-Chair for the Progressive Democrats of America Healthcare Not Warfare campaign, and on the Steering Committee of Healthcare-NOW!.


  1. Terry Kaye on August 14, 2010 at 12:24 am

    My mother died of cancer in 2006, and the complication that took her life was a direct result of delays in care caused by her for-profit health insurance company.

    I was (and still am) horrified at how much control these companies have over our medical decisions. Life and death decisions are made by people with no medical training or experience, and are made in the name of what is cost-effective, not what is best for the patient. If you or I were to practice medicine without a license, we’d go to jail. When insurance executives do it, they get bonuses.

    I started a small nonprofit, the Saralee and Carol Foundation, in honor of my mother and my best friend’s mother. We are dedicated to helping women with cancer get treatment when health insurance says “no.”

    This month we are in the running for a $50,000 grant in the Pepsi Refresh program – but we need help to win! You can help by visiting http://www.refresheverything.com/cancerhope once a day, every day, and voting for us. Thank you for your support!