In the hours that followed President Obama's State of the Union address, I received emails from friends, colleagues, and Doctors for America members who felt they had finally seen the leadership on health care that our country needs.
President Obama reminded Congress and all of us of a fundamental truth too often obscured by misinformation and political theater: that the need for health care reform remains urgent and is only growing with each passing day. He rightly urged Congress to move this contentious legislative process forward, not for political calculation or short term gain, but for the millions of lives which literally depend on it.
One of the most important jobs of the president is to be the Communicator in Chief. This is who President Obama was on Wednesday night. More importantly, that is who he must continue to be in the weeks and months ahead.
We know that support for health reform legislation increases significantly when people understand a few key concepts in the bills. But many people don't realize that the current legislation would make it easier and cheaper for them to get insurance or that it would protect them from losing coverage once they have it. Instead, they have been told that health reform will limit their choice of doctor and lead to delays in care - neither of these claims is true.
Communicating the reality of health reform to the American people and dispelling myths will require the visible and ongoing leadership of the President.
But it will also require something far more powerful: Us.
President Obama was right when he said he alone cannot bring the change we need. Neither can Congress. They need our help.
For those of us who see the urgency of our health care crisis in our clinics and for those who have been burned by the failures of the system, we need to stand up and speak out. We need to demand change from our Representatives and the White House, but we also need to talk to our fellow citizens and urge them to act. Apathy in the current climate is understandable. The rancor of the past year has turned off so many people. But the stakes in this debate are human lives - and this demands action from all of us.
A simple example: recently, I saw a 25 year old single mother in clinic. Her name was Elizabeth. A year ago, she had an abnormal chest x-ray showing nodules in her left lung. Her doctor asked her to get a CT scan of her chest to better define the nodules, which she did. Unfortunately, she lost her job and her health insurance soon after and was unable to return to see her doctor. It took her 11 very stressful months to find another job that offered health insurance after which she finally returned to the clinic.
I remember flipping through the papers in her chart with a sinking feeling in my stomach. "Number nodules are seen in the left lower lobe," the report noted. It was not an outright diagnosis of cancer, but the radiologist strongly recommended getting a repeat CT scan in 3 month and a biopsy if the nodules were still present. The tragedy of her situation is that her nodules may yet be cancer, and we may have missed the window to treat Elizabeth.
Had Elizabeth had insurance, she would have returned to the clinic earlier. She would have received her follow up. If this was in fact cancer, it would have been caught much earlier. Even if it wasn't cancer, Elizabeth would have been spared many months of anguish as she worried about her own health and the welfare of her young son.
Elizabeth's story does not stand alone. It is a single thread in a larger tapestry of good intentions mired in a broken system. Stories like Elizabeth's are the reason that I and many others are urging Congress to fix our health care system - because we believe that a young mother should never have to face the possibility of an early death from cancer just because she lost her job.
The political climate for passing health reform looks more challenging now than a month ago. But the only thing that is stronger than Washington gridlock is the collective will of the people. Civil rights supporters knew this. So did the brave men and women who founded our country against much greater opposition. If we let health reform be a political issue, it may fail. But if we reclaim it as our issue - a moral and economic issue that affects the lives of million of our fellow citizens, we will succeed in pushing Congress to act. This is what we are called to do now.