I learned today that my favorite aunt and godmother has died.
Auntie Re had a profound effect on my life. She taught me how to live in the moment and look forward to whatever adventures would come my way in the future.
She had a deep wisdom, a lively sense of humor and incredible grace.
When I was 15 and my whole life had fallen to pieces because Teddy Guedard and I had broken up, my mother told me I should cheer up because this was the best time of my life.
That piece of advice made me want to curl up and die. But Auntie Re told me my mother was mistaken.
"Oh no," she said. "This could be the worst time in your life."
I asked her what would be the best.
"I don't know," she said. "I don't think I've reached it yet. Every year just gets better."
She was right. I still look forward to the best times. On days when I want to curl up and die, I remember Auntie Re telling me when she was in her mid-70s that she loved getting old.
How many people think like that?
Auntie Re's real name was Marguerite, but I never heard anyone call her that. Sometimes my Uncle Ralph called her "Mags" or "Maggie;" the rest of us just called her Re.
Perhaps what shaped her life was her illness when she was a child. She had tuberculosis and spent months alone in a small cabin, isolated from anyone but family. She emerged strong, wise and deeply appreciative of life's adventures.
I talked to my cousin Peter tonight, the middle one of her three sons. He said he and his brothers, Mark and David, were with her for her final days, talking to her, holding her hand, being present.
"She died of old age," he said. "She was 88 and she was ready to go."
I wish I were ready to let her go.
As of tomorrow, insurance companies no longer will be able to deny coverage to children who have a pre-existing condition.
But three big companies, Wellpoint, Cigna and Coventry One, have decided they will stop offering plans for children on the private market. That means if you have a child who has mild asthma, say, and you want to insure her, you won't be able to buy a policy from any of these companies. In fact, you won't be able to buy a policy for her even if she is in perfect health.
A spokesman for the industry lobbying group, America's Health Insurance Plans, says the new provision offers incentive to parents to wait until their children are sick to buy insurance.
Wendell Potter, a health care activist who once was head of public relations for Cigna, said the problem is that most of the biggest insurance companies are for-profit.
"The system we have is built on profit," Potter said. "They are beholden to Wall Street."
Last month, the U.S. Census Bureau said the nation now has 51 million uninsured people -- up 10 percent over last year. There's nothing yet that will lower that number significantly, although there is some help that kicks in tomorrow:
Your insurance company no longer will be able to cancel your policy if you get sick because you made an innocent mistake on your application. You're covered. Of course that doesn't mean your company has to pay for any treatment it deems unnecessary or experimental, but it can't cancel your policy.
However, you will have an avenue if the insurance company denies a treatment. As of tomorrow, the law requires new health plans to implement an effective process for allowing consumers to appeal insurance company decisions and requires new plans to establish an external review process.
There no longer will be annual limits on how much money your insurance plan will spend over the course of a lifetime and limits on annual coverage will be restricted. In other words, the insurance company can't pay for a heart transplant and then say you have reached a lifetime maximum and cut you off.
If you have insurance and your 21-year-old child can't find a job with insurance, you can keep that child on your plan for another five years, until he or she is 26.
The law requires new health plans to provide, at a minimum, coverage without cost-sharing for preventive services rated A or B by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, recommended immunizations, preventive care for infants, children, and adolescents, and additional preventive care and screenings for women. That means you get a mammogram before you can feel a tumor growing in your breast.
A temporary program will provide health coverage to individuals with pre-existing medical conditions who have been uninsured for at least six months. The plan will be operated by the states or the federal government. North Carolina is among several states that already have such a high-risk pool, but it is expensive.
All this and more become law tomorrow. There still are people and lobbyists fighting it, but as more happens to improve access to care, maybe we'll see the numbers of uninsured -- and the number of deaths as a result -- begin to drop.
We aren't done yet. We have a foundation for a system; now we have to build.
I had lunch with my board member and friend, Marvin Chambers, today.
Whenever I need a dose of kick-butt, I can talk to Marvin. He was a Civil Rights Warrior in the 1950s and 60s, beginning with high school. While he was learning about nonviolent protest as a way to achieve racial equality, I was in grammar school in an all-white town, watching the Civil Rights Movement unfold. I was 6 when Martin Luther King led the Montgomery bus boycott. I remember vividly the images of people being washed down the street with high-powered fire hoses, of people being beaten at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I remember the Freedom Riders, and I remember my parents being moved to tears by the news footage.
Marvin was one of those people who risked his life by standing up to power. Marvin doesn't give up, and he offered me a pep talk that made me ready to fight again even as the nation seems poised to return to power the party that opposed health reform and now threatens to destroy what little was passed.
I was feeling a little defeated, and Marvin told me there were moments in the Civil Rights Movement when people felt that way, but King said "Nobody can ride your back of you stand straight."
Any fight worth fighting will have setbacks, but we have to have the strength to keep going.
There are days when I miss Mike so much, the pain feels fresh and raw again, and it's tough to see ahead. I guess I'll always have those moments.
But Marvin helped me realize again why I'm fighting -- so that everyone will have access to quality, affordable care -- so that no one will have to suffer the way my child did -- so that no mother will have to go through the pain of losing a child because of a broken system.
After talking to Marvin for a couple hours, I feel energized and ready to resume the fight.
There's a lot of dissatisfaction with our Democratic member of Congress here in Western North Carolina. Heath Shuler lost the primary in Buncombe to a candidate who had no money to advertise. He managed to hang on in the other counties of the district, but I think he got a wake-up call.
On his commercials, Shuler brags about saying no to spending. But one of those no votes came with health care. He was against it even though it will pay for itself over the next decade, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
He wasn't very articulate about why he opposed saving 45,000 lives a year; he just kept repeating the words, "waste, fraud and abuse," as though government programs is the only way that happens.
A lot of us are really torn about whether we should vote for him with the Democratic majority in peril. Many of my friends say they just won't vote for Congress this time around. They're just too fed up with Shuler's votes against most things that would have helped the middle class.
Yesterday, a couple of friends asked it I'd give them permission to write in my name on the ballot.
Well, there's no chance I'll win, but it does provide an alternative to a few people.
So, go ahead; vote for me. Write me in. If elected, I will serve.
I've joined a new group, Americans for Health Care. The name says it all. We want quality, affordable health care for all Americans. We don't have to agree on the finer points; we just have to agree Americans deserve access to care.
The group's co-founder is Dr. Michael Rushnak, a retired physician from New Jersey. He has worked for health care for everyone for 25 years, which makes him an older warrior than I am -- I only started writing about the issue in 1992.
Rushnak eventual goal is to get 1 million people to march on Washington and demand that it happen. He doesn't care what the new system looks like; he only cares that it offer access to affordable, quality care for all Americans.
I joined because I believe what he says. We all just have to agree that we need this and forget about what details we want in the law. We need to be unified in our desire that the system work for everyone.
"Martin Luther King didn't write civil rights legislation," Rushnak said. "King led a movement and Congress wrote the law. That's what we need to get done here."
Rushnak is right. We don't need to talk about the things we disagree on; we need to talk about the one thing we agree on: We need a health care system that works. Period. We are the only industrialized nation in the world that doesn't have a system that works for its people. We rank 37th in health care outcomes, according to a study by the World Health Organization. Right behind Slovenia.
What we have today is a still-broken system and the law that did pass will n0t fix it. We need access for all the 50 million who have too little or no insurance, not just 3/5 of them. This is not socialism, it is, simply, humanitarian.
The group is new and still small. Its Web presence is on Facebook -- if you're on Facebook, search for Americans for Health Care and join us.