One woman’s fight for health care reform takes a very personal turn.
ISSUE: Spring 2010
DEPT: My Story
STORY: Veronica De La Cruz
On July 4, 2009, I lost my brother and only sibling Eric Alexander De La Cruz. He passed away while awaiting a heart transplant. Five years ago, he was diagnosed with severe dilated cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the heart that prevents it from pumping normally. Since then, we had tried to get Eric insurance coverage that would allow him to get the treatment he needed, but no private insurer would offer him insurance because of this preexisting condition.
My brother and I grew up in Northern California and, though we were a couple years apart, we were always very close. As kids, we spent all our time on the ice at the local rink. Eric played hockey, while I trained as a figure skater.
As adults, we remained best friends, talking and joking on the phone or over email. We loved trading music and would always keep each other up to date on what was happening in the world of hockey or figure skating. Eric loved the Anaheim Ducks, and it would crush him if they didn’t win. He was a talented artist, music producer and designer. His love was a constant reminder that there was more to life than work.
When Eric’s heart condition was diagnosed, our lives changed forever. In May 2009, his kidneys began to fail and doctors told me only a heart transplant would save his life. Since he was young and otherwise healthy, I thought our chances were excellent. But Eric did not have the luxury of insurance coverage provided through his employer, a small Web design firm that only employed seven people. His only insurer, state Medicaid, wouldn’t cover the out-of-state operation Eric needed. And he was denied federal Medicare — twice.
Eventually, when we finally did get federal coverage for Eric, the hospital still demanded private supplemental insurance to help cover the huge expenses. And the rub? Insurance companies won’t sell supplemental insurance policies to those with pre-existing conditions, so we were right back to square one. We were told we might still have to come up with nearly a million dollars.
Medical bills have bankrupted our family. My mother even shared her own heart medication with Eric when he couldn’t afford it. With Eric’s health deteriorating, and feeling desperate, I began relying on the kindness of strangers.
In May, I started talking about Eric on Twitter. To my amazement, complete strangers started to come together in support. Within a week, hundreds of donors had raised $6,000 and Eric’s cause was being promoted by celebrities like Demi Moore, Alyssa Milano and P. Diddy. Those willing to champion Eric’s fight for his life soon numbered in the thousands. Popular bands Nine Inch Nails and Jane’s Addiction, as well as professional skateboarder Tony Hawk, helped put fundraising into overdrive. Altogether, Eric’s Twitter Army raised nearly $1 million in a matter of weeks.
In June, Eric was moved to a California hospital, where he was put at the top of the heart transplant list. It was a happy time for us and we were busy planning for the future. We were looking forward to doing normal things together, like walking his dog Chance and finally getting on the ice again. And every day, I took time to assure him that everything was going to be OK.
But sadly enough, doctors informed me the fight would be hard. In fact, they pulled me aside to say, “You guys got here two years too late.” They explained that Eric’s battle for a heart should have started two years earlier — back when we were trying to secure insurance coverage and one by one each insurance company was saying no. The day my brother passed away I promised him I would do two things: take care of Mom and his dog, and try my hardest to change the health care system. I sat by his bedside crying, promising that I would do everything within my own power to make sure that no one suffered again needlessly, the way he did.
Still deeply mourning my brother, I’ve been trying to fulfill those promises. I’ve made multiple trips to Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress for health care reform, arguing that coverage must be available to all, even to those with preexisting conditions, and that insurance companies must be prohibited from dropping sick patients. I’ve spoken at rallies across the country, sharing Eric’s story, illustrating the urgent need for change. I’ve been working with young patients who have found themselves in similar positions as Eric’s, the latest being a man in his 30s whose insurance provider, AETNA, has refused to cover the cost of his transplant. I only hope the work that I do will one day put an end to the unconscionable practices seen from insurance companies like AETNA, among others.
My brother’s inability to get adequate health insurance has had a devastating impact on my life. It’s broken my mother’s heart and has sent the lives of other friends and family members into a tailspin. Being excluded from the health care system because of a pre-existing condition robbed my only sibling of his fair chance at life, and it robbed all of us of his gifts, talents and love.
Health care reform may come too late for Eric, but I hope it will come in time to help thousands of other families who may otherwise also lose loved ones simply because private insurance companies choose to turn away the sick. Helping to bring about the day when everyone has the right to health insurance will be my brother Eric’s greatest gift, so please, do your part.
Log on to EricsLaw.com and sign the petition. Contact your elected officials and the President and tell them that you support health care reform, which is urgently needed now. Health care is a basic human right, and should no longer be looked at as a privilege.