On Nov. 4, 2008, I was among the Americans celebrating the election of U.S. Sen. Barack Obama as president. I had come to Florida from Washington to help out in the home stretch of the campaign and was eager to return and witness the transformation of Washington into a Democratic town. Yet two days after the election, I felt a bump in a place where bumps are not to be; four days after that, I was diagnosed with cancer.
I faced cancer having three advantages that many of my fellow patients lacked: My cancer was caught very early, the cure rate for testicular cancer was quite high, and I had excellent health insurance. The first advantage came from a combination of luck and vigilance. The second advantage came from science. The third advantage had little to do with luck at all. I worked for an employer that willingly provided excellent insurance.
After three months of chemotherapy and recovery, my cancer was placed into remission, where I hope it remains. I returned to Washington, to my consulting job and, thankfully, a sense of normalcy. Shortly after that return, President Obama and Congress began designing health care reform legislation that eventually became the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. As luck would have it, my firm was hired to help push the consensus for health care reform.
As the legislation developed, one key feature stood out to me as a cancer survivor: prohibiting insurance companies from denying coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. People like the 129 million Americans who have a "pre-existing condition." People like me. For too long, millions of Americans were stranded: They were not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid but not "healthy" enough to be approved by a faceless insurer. Without access to routine or preventive care, these uninsured were faced with a dilemma for their medical care: Pay exorbitant amounts out of pocket or hope things get better. When things didn't get better, emergency rooms were the only "free" alternative. But someone does pay for emergency care: consumers and taxpayers.
I had the good fortune to avoid this dilemma because of my employer. Millions of Americans do not share my good fortune. Insurance only works if a large number of people — healthy and sick — are covered. If we are going to be a nation that prohibits insurance companies from denying coverage because of one's history, we must also be a nation that mandates participation in that same insurance market. This is not so that government can use its power to force Americans to buy things. It is so that millions of Americans can access affordable, quality health care — the kind of care to which Congress members, the Obama family and Supreme Court justices are accustomed.
A week ago, I turned 27, sharing the day with a historic event: the U.S. Supreme Court's decision affirming the Affordable Care Act. Birthdays take on a greater significance for sick people. For those who have survived a traumatic illness like cancer, birthdays are another line in a tally, another milestone marking one's escape from real and memorable danger. The American Cancer Society calls itself the "Official Sponsor of Birthdays" for good reason: It is how we keep score. Because cancer keeps score, too. And its column is all too full of lives cut short, lives of moms and dads, brothers and sisters, best friends and soul mates.
The coming weeks will be filled with the joy and outrage that both sides have been steadily manufacturing for months in anticipation. Our political leaders in Washington and in state capitals around the country will face a choice: Implement the law of the land or obstruct and delay. For those of us who stand to gain from the act's protections, we will be waiting. As cancer and other diseases become a "pre-existing condition" for thousands more, we will be waiting. Until access to affordable health care becomes a possibility for every American, we will be waiting.
Tyler Hudson is a third-year law student at the University of Florida.