Friday, October 23, 2009

First Lady Raises Breast Cancer Awareness, Calls For Healthcare Reform

How many families need federal food assistance due to soaring medical bills and lack of insurance?
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and the White House was very aware today. There were pink ribbons festooning pillars, and staffers at every level were wearing pink lapel pins. First Lady Michelle Obama also wore a pink ribbon as she gave a speech about the dire need for health care reform to an audience of breast cancer survivors, activists, and Congressional leaders. The event was held in the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, which was specifically chosen because many members of the Kennedy family, including the former First Lady herself, have battled cancer. (Above: Mrs. Obama)

“We have a health care system in this country that simply is not working for too many people with breast cancer and too many people who are surviving with breast cancer,” Mrs. Obama said. “It’s a system that only adds to the fear and stress that already comes with the disease.”

Behind Mrs. Obama onstage, there were nods from breast cancer survivors and Jill Biden, the vice-president's wife, who started a breast cancer education program in Delaware after discovering that her four closest friends had the disease. Before Mrs. Obama's remarks, each of the survivors spoke movingly about their own battles with the disease, as well as about how it had led to financial ruin for their families when treatment costs soared and they became uninsurable. (Above: Mrs. Obama, with Mrs. Biden at right)

Mrs. Obama noted that the health care legislation supported by the President and his allies in Congress will help women with breast cancer by barring insurers from denying coverage because of pre-existing conditions, and it will cap out-of-pocket expenses.

“That’s why it is so critically important that we finally reform our health care system that is causing so much heartache for so many people affected by this disease,” Mrs. Obama said. "In this country, getting sick shouldn't mean going bankrupt."

Mrs. Obama didn't mention food issues during her speech, although her Food Initiative Coordinator, assistant chef Sam Kass, was wearing a bright pink tie as he watched Mrs. Obama from the back of the crowded garden. But there are all kinds of food issues entwined with surviving cancer--or with going bankrupt/becoming impoverished from paying medical bills, and these can dramatically elevate "the fear and stress" Mrs. Obama mentioned. For instance, many medical treatments save the patient's life, but ravage the body, and make the need for the most nutritious foods hypercritical. But these kinds of foods can't be afforded if high medical bills consume family economies. And all week, both the White House and USDA were focused on federal nutrition assistance programs. Today's event would have been an excellent opportunity to point out how many cancer patients and survivors--and people with other illnessess--wind up needing government assistance for food because their health care expenses have left them too poor to buy groceries. Also, many people who need health care don't seek treatment because they don't have insurance, and then wind up too sick to work, and eventually they, too, seek federal nutrition assistance because they can't afford food for their families.

The health care debate is also about gender bias: Women pay more than men for health insurance, and despite that, many critical preventative screenings, such as mammograms, aren't even covered. When you consider that almost half of all families are headed by a single mother, it's even easier to see the connection between health care reform and federal nutrition assistance. Women are already acutely underserved by the health insurance industry, and it's easy to argue that without health care reform even more women and their families will need to use federal feeding programs. Thank goodness the federal feeding programs exist--but it's a terrible state of affairs when families have to take advantage of them because they've become impoverished from medical bills.

"Now is the time," Mrs. Obama said. She was surrounded by cancer survivors as she left the podium, and stood in the garden for a long time, speaking with survivors and handing out hugs. One of the recipients was Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla), who at age 42 was elected to her third Congressional term while battling breast cancer. A mother of three, she underwent seven different surgeries, and has introduced breast cancer legislation. Read more about Rep. Schultz here. (Photo: Rep. Schultz at the event, with one of her children)

*Photos by Obama Fodoorama