Share this article

print logo

Chronically ill worried about fate of health care reform

Cancer patient Kathy Watson voted Republican in 2008 and believes the government has no right telling Americans to get health insurance. Nonetheless, she says she'd be dead if it weren't for President Obama's health care law.

Now the Florida small-business woman is worried that the Supreme Court will strike down her lifeline. Under the law, Watson and nearly 62,000 other "uninsurable" patients are getting coverage through a little-known program for people who have been turned away by insurance companies because of pre-existing medical conditions.

"Without it, I would have been dead on March 2," Watson said of the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan, known as PCIP. That's when she was hospitalized with a life-threatening respiratory infection.

It's not clear how the Supreme Court will rule on Obama's law, but Watson's case illustrates the potential impact of tying everything in the far-reaching legislation to the fate of one provision, the unprecedented requirement that most Americans carry health insurance.

The law's opponents say if that insurance mandate is found to be unconstitutional, the rest of the law should also go, since courts should not be picking and choosing policy. The administration defends the insurance requirement but says if the court decides to overturn it, most of the rest of the law should stay. State officials who administer the federal pre-existing condition plan in 27 states are trying to make fallback arrangements in case the law is invalidated and coverage suddenly terminates.

"Some of these individuals are critically ill and are being treated for very serious illnesses, whether it be cancer or HIV/AIDS, and we feel a responsibility to them to do what we can to see they don't lose access," said Amie Goldman, who oversees PCIP in Wisconsin.

Federal officials who administer the plan in the remaining 23 states and Washington, D.C., remain mum on what might happen there if the law is overturned.

The White House line is that Obama is confident the Supreme Court will uphold the Affordable Care Act, and his administration therefore is making no contingency plans for a reversal. None of that sounds reassuring to Watson, who owns a medical transport service in north-central Florida.

"It's scary," she said. "They need to look at this carefully because it is going to affect a lot of people with a lot of bad conditions who are not going to have any health care coverage."

Before PCIP, Watson had been uninsured since 2003, originally turned down because of elevated white blood cells. About three years ago, she was diagnosed with a chronic form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system. Unable to afford medications, she relied on the emergency room to treat flare-ups.

She tried applying to a major insurance company for a small-business plan for her and her employees, and was quickly rejected. Then she heard about PCIP.

The temporary program is meant to serve as a patch until 2014, when the federal health care law will require insurers to accept all applicants, including cancer patients like Watson, regardless of medical history.

Without her PCIP coverage, Watson is convinced she would have been sent home from the emergency room after initial treatment to ease her shortness of breath.

"I would have gone into cardiac arrest and probably died," she added.