My Own Private Sicko

Chris Corbell

[Editor's note: Today, Chris Corbell joins us as a regular contributor. Chris describes himself as "a software engineer, a father, a Democrat, and a politically unambitious citizen blogger."]

Michael Moore's film Sicko was effective in advocating for a better health system largely because it presented the stories of everyday Americans.  Over a decade ago the Oregon Health Plan gave me the first health coverage of my adult life, an experience which shifted my worldview, and which also affects my choice in this year's Presidential race.

In 1991 in New Orleans I was working as a cook/bar-back for minimum wage when I came down with what was probably some strain of pneumonia. I kept working through this illness (my boss demanded it), weak and wheezing, and as it kept getting worse I used a day off to try and get treatment at the public Charity Hospital which served low-income patients. The waiting room was packed and after three or four delirious hours I gave up. I ended up going to some random M.D.'s office near my house - it wasn't a general practice office but I managed to get a cursory exam and a prescription for antibiotics - all of which set me back two week's wages, or about a month's rent.

That wasn't the only time I faced illness without health insurance, and I know many people have faced much worse. As a young adult in Louisiana (and Tennessee before that) health care seemed to me like a racket that you could only be part of in a privileged caste. It went along with country club golf, five-bedroom homes and brand new cars. After I dropped out of college for lack of money (while Reagan was still in office), I started smoking and later drinking heavily. With Bohemian passion and disdain I embraced my lot with the damned, forswearing the notion that I would ever have the safety net or perfect health that I imagined belonged to the shiny happy children of privilege. After a few years of such nihilistic smoldering amid piles of used books, I moved to Oregon.

After living and working here a year I applied for the Oregon Health Plan and, for the first time in my adult life, had health insurance. With a simple enrollment in OHP I could go to the doctor and it would cost me at most a half-day's wages. Under the OHP I even got glasses for the first time since I was about 10; with mock-Trotskyite relish I told a friend how the optician pulled an unmarked box of "state frames" from under a table, from which I chose my new spectacles. The gradual change this worked in me is difficult to completely attribute to one cause, but out of this experience - which also included a higher minimum wage in Oregon, and better student aid as I returned to college under the Clinton administration - I took responsibility for myself, and for my health. It took time but once I had just a little help I didn't feel so doomed, and out of gratitude began to have more drive to succeed, to give something back. In 1995 the Oregon Health Plan was part of this change, as I found a way past a self-destructive and maudlin sympathy for the devil to a healthier sympathy for the normal.

The OHP is not what it was in those early years. After being shut down to new enrollment in 2004, it is now a lottery, and from 600,000 uninsured, 80,000 people have applied, and just a few thousand of those applicants will get covered this year. Back in New Orleans, Charity Hospital's future is in question, and I wonder how many of those I left in that waiting room made it through their illnesses, and through Hurricane Katrina. I'm fortunate now to be healthy (smoke-free!) and have employer-provided health insurance, but many Oregonians - and a great many more throughout our nation - do not have this advantage. Every day, people face scenarios far more dangerous and costly than my Acadian summer pneumonia.

Health care is a major reason that I'm supporting Hillary Clinton for President in 2008. I did not fully understand in the early 1990's what was at stake in Hillary's first fight for universal health care; I was too cynical to believe it would come to pass, so it was just another thing on TV to shrug knowingly about from my barstool when the powers that be shut her effort down with Harry and Louise. But that was before I had experienced life in a supportive, progressive state of Oregon.

Hillary Clinton knows better than anyone what's at stake here.  That's why she is not starting out yielding ground to the right by omitting a universal mandate. She began this struggle 15 years ago, and she has built her knowledge and political clout continuously. Any of us who have tried to make modest changes in our own local companies and institutions know how hard it is. This is not a fact of Washington politics, it is a fact of every human institution: the race to truly change how things work is not a sprint, it is a marathon. When I look at Hillary's successes with SCHIP, her Senate office's ongoing research and legislation, and when I look at the way she surprised Republicans by her humility, her approachability, and her work ethic in her seven years in the Senate, I see proof of true, results-oriented leadership. Here is a woman who has the maturity and the deep, evolving commitment to this issue that will be required to get the job done.

I will always strive to give back to Oregon in thanks for the stepping-stone to health and a brighter future that this state gave me when I moved here in that heyday of state public health. And this year I will try to give back even more, not just to Oregon but to Louisiana and Tennessee and every state where folks struggle like I did, by continuing to support Hillary Clinton's campaign for President - and by casting my ballot for her in Oregon's primary on May 20.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)

    You are on the Hillary side of the fence while I'm on the Obama side, but I'll concede your point about Hillary having the better health care plan based on non-partisan opinions rating both plans. However, both of their plans will very likely be irrelevant since they include use of private insurance companies. Unless they borrow from Ron Wyden's approach, these insurance companies along with other medical-related corporations and unions (associations) will decide what plan America will have through their paid surrogates in Congress. In other words, lotsa luck America.

    PS: I'm happy for you that your lot has improved so much. I hope it continues.

  • (Show?)

    Chris, it'll be good to have you as a regular contributor. Welcome! Glad you survived your ordeal. I, too, almost died from pneumonia, albeit from a nasty car accident in late 1997. I'm extremely grateful for the care that saved my life and the health care I now enjoy. And from seeing our system up close and personal, I can attest: we got problems.

    The Obama plan does have a mandate, but it applies specifically to children. His strategy is to drive down costs to reach universal coverage. The New York Times recently compared the fight over the Clinton and Obama health plans to two homeless guys fighting over what color Ferrari they'd buy. The point is, both are a helluva lot better than what we have now.

    But what if Obama doesn't get there? I think there's a sense out there that national health care reform is just a one-time event. I don't think it is, and I don't think it should be. We should keep at this until we get it right. Obama has pledged universal coverage, and I believe he'll keep at it until we get there.

    Obama's background includes expanding coverage for more than 100,000 kids in Illinois. As Oregonians know from our recent Measure 50 fight, even getting our most vulnerable -- Oregon's children -- covered is no easy task. The difference with Obama is that he's building the type of grass-roots, bottom-up political movement that's needed to bring about real change. Frankly, Hillary's campaign model, as highlighted in the recent Rolling Stone piece, is more traditional command-and-control politics. Most importantly, it's ill-suited to building the kind of progressive infrastructure to support our shared goals of real reform on health care, not to mention the coming battle over energy policy.

  • Bill Whitlatch (unverified)

    I agree with Mr. Bodden. As long as insurance companies are involved the situation will not be resolved.

    I very much reading your post as have maintained for a number of years we can have a much better society if we have methods to provide basic services.

    Your experience as a cook should be an eye opener for everyone he eats at a restaurant.

    BHO also gets my vote.

  • Josh Kardon (unverified)

    Thanks for sharing your story, Chris.

    It is impossible, for someone who has never been there, to comprehend the forces aligned to resist universal health care. They don't and won't fight fair, and you had better have a President who knows to to take a punch and give better than she got. That's another important reason to vote for this strong, brilliant woman.

  • BCM (unverified)

    Chris - Good column. I look forward to reading more from you; although I hope you won't have to go through so much to write it next time. In all sincerity, I've had pneumonia, it doesn't come in stains as you say, but I still sympathize nevertheless.

    I just wonder why Blue Oregon is giving such a disproportionate voice to Hillary supporters. It seems as if us Obama supporters cannot get our voices heard.

    I wish you luck in your future posts. I just hope you don't get caught up in Kari's editing pendulum: it's been known to sway the way of the establishment.

  • dickey45 (unverified)

    I wonder if both Clinton and Obama's health care proposals are there just to get their feet in the door as a president. Nothing like having the insurance industry come crashing on a candidate.

    And no offense, but it is pretty interesting that person coming from outside Oregon really understands the state or should have a whole lot to contribute. It seems there's enough Californians here to tell us how stupid we are....

  • Maribeth Healey (unverified)


    Thanks for sharing your story, and no distrespect to Mr. Moore, but the idea of sharing personal stories is not new, My organization has been putting hte human face on the health care crisis for the past five years ( Every day of the legisaltive session, we han devliver a sotry to the Oregon press corps, the governor's office an all 90 legislators. Also FYI-over 92,000 people have signed up for the health care lottery (I know it was a ever shifting number)

    The window Charlie, is open for a very short time and while I agree that Obama wants to get to affordable health care for everyone-one problem I have with his plan is that covering kids, without their parents, doesn't work. All the data shows that the kids don't get the care they need if the parents don't have coverage as well.

    The real point is that health care is the # one issue and both of the democratic candidates at least want to address the issue, contrary to the current occupant of the White House who vetoes coverage for kids. The window is open again to change our health care system and create a new one that works for all of us. It will take all of us to battle the entrenched and monied interests in health care to get what we want and need.

  • Maribeth Healey (unverified)

    Oops sorry for the typos, I meant to preview not post.

  • opinionated (unverified)

    Ah! Finally someone is talking bits and bytes about health care and why Hillary knows it better than anyone. I think most of the community of Obama supporters were probably still in their diapers 15 years ago. Chris, I too was inspired by Hillary's healthcare plan to make a change and despite its failure it forced the country, the industry, the practitioners, all forces in healthcare to look at lowering cost of healthcare and making it accessible to more, like OHP. Many ideas like managed care etc. eventually failed but it forced awareness and now here we are all touting still for lowering cost of healthcare and making it more accessible. Hillary has the plan, the vision and experience.

    Peace out! I have a strong opinion about this!

  • (Show?)


    Sorry, but there are plenty of us who were long out of diapers 15 years ago.

  • Martin Washington (unverified)
    <h2>Although I'm on the Obama side I'll agree with you that Hillary has a good health care plan based on non-partisan opinions rating both plans. However I just can’t see anyone getting rid of private insurance companies. Unless they borrow from Courtney's approach, these insurance companies along with other medical-related corporations and unions (associations) will decide what plan America will have through their paid surrogates in Congress. If we’re going to have a recession anyway, might as well have everyone go through it now. In other words, I am supporting strong leadership by donating to positive 527’s like</h2>

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