Sen. Jamie Eldridge: Health reform through a patient's eyes

Sen. Jamie Eldridge/Guest columnist

On the morning of October 7th, 2009, I suffered a one-minute seizure that broke many of the bones in my back, strained my spine, and tore my right shoulder out of its socket. Given the seriousness of the injuries that I sustained, I was rushed to Mass. General Hospital.

I don't remember any of the above - but I do remember that once I was conscious, I was relieved to be at MGH, because I knew that I'd be getting arguably the best medical care in the world to fix my injuries.

The reason I had access to this care was because I am lucky enough to have comprehensive health care through my job, which would cover the three surgeries, extended care, and rehab necessary for me to recover from my injuries. It is impossible to overstate what peace of mind this gave me, my family and loved ones.

But what about those patients at MGH, and across the country, who don't have health insurance as comprehensive as mine, or health insurance at all? What peace of mind is there for their families at an incredibly difficult time?

As I lay in bed, knowing that I was lucky enough to have excellent health insurance that would cover my treatment, I couldn't help but think over and over about those who weren't so lucky. How many of my fellow patients already realized that because of their poor health care coverage, their lives would never again be the same?

After two weeks at MGH, I was transferred to the Spaulding Rehabilitation Center. One day while resting in bed from physical therapy, I overheard a young, permanently disabled man hanging out in the hallway inform a fellow patient that he was being discharged a week early from Spaulding. It wasn't that his therapy team had decided he was ready to go to the next level - it was that his insurance company had determined that they would not pay for any further comprehensive therapy at Spaulding. He was headed home, and he really wasn't sure what he would be able to do to improve his current physical limitations.

When I spoke with one of my nurses about this reality, she told me how things had changed in health care over her 23 years at Spaulding. When she first started, a patient with such injuries could stay for 9 to 12 months. Today, insurance companies push for an early discharge, or simply include in their policies a cut-off date for paying for such services.

As an elected official, I've heard many stories like this before. But being there at the rehabilitation center as a patient myself, and observing the cruel realities of the American health care system right before my eyes, really drove the point home. How is it that in the richest country in the world, this is how our health care system works?

I've been a strong proponent of a "Medicare for All" health care system since first joining the Massachusetts Legislature seven years ago. I believe a single-payer system like this will best achieve the health care reform goals that many of us share, from providing health care coverage for the uninsured to improving coverage for current health insurance members, reducing health care costs, and simplifying the country's health care delivery system.

But over the past month, as I have been focused on health care as a patient, rather than just as an elected official, I've become more and more convinced that any health care reform we make - single payer or otherwise - must start with the agreement that access to quality health care should be a right in this country.

There is a basic quality of care we all deserve when we are sick or injured. Yet without establishing health care as a right, there is no guarantee that every other Massachusetts citizen would be treated like I have been. In fact, absent government intervention, there are strong market, financial, and societal incentives that make it highly likely that no basic standard of treatment will exist. After all, that young disabled man was being denied proper treatment for no other reason than to save his health insurance company money.

As a society, we all benefit when individual members have access to quality health care. In my case, had I not received the right treatment within a relatively short amount of time, my life would have been changed dramatically, limiting my ability to be the most productive citizen that I could possibly be, and my ability to contribute to society and lead a happy life. It's the same for anyone else in a similar situation.

Until we define health care as a right, there will continue to be Americans like those I have met over the past month, whose lives will be irreversibly thrown off-track by an accident or illness, whose financial insecurity will lead to greater physical problems, whose lives will be changed forever because they lacked access to quality health care.

I can think of few other instances of government action that would have as dramatic an impact on people's lives as establishing a right to health care, or that would more positively impact every community in the country.

Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, represents the Middlesex and Worcester District. You can contact him at 617-722-1120, or by e-mail at

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