Surrounded by gravestones, protesters speak out in favor of Affordable Care Act

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Father Fred Kammer of Jesuit Social Research Institute opened and closed the protest. - KAT STROMQUIST
  • KAT STROMQUIST
  • Father Fred Kammer of Jesuit Social Research Institute opened and closed the protest.

Before the  Affordable Care Act (ACA), schoolteacher Alaina Comeaux viewed age 25 as a death sentence.

That's the age when she would be ousted from her parents' insurance and forced to try and find insurance on the private market to cover her treatments for Crohn's disease and ankylosing spondylitis. One treatment she receives as many as eight times a year costs $21,000 — per session.

"My doctor actually tried to hide my diagnosis from insurance companies for more than a year," she said. "[Without regulations related to the ACA] I'd go bankrupt pretty quickly. ... It's pretty hopeless."

Comeaux benefits from key provisions of the health care law popularly known as Obamacare, including its ban on lifetime limits for coverage and its rule that insurers may not deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions. In Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 on a chilly Saturday morning, she and several other people gave short testimonials on how the ACA has improved their lives.

Sara Magana uses her ACA-provided insurance to manage her asthma.
  • Sara Magana uses her ACA-provided insurance to manage her asthma.

The Jan. 28 event, organized by Jesuit Social Research Institute, the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy and Progressive Social Network, highlighted the grim reality of health care repeal. Public health experts recently have estimated that as many as 43,956 people will die each year if the law is repealed without a meaningful replacement. (They'd fill up  the seats in the Smoothie King Center, two and a half times.) A fact sheet distributed at the event estimated that as many as half a million Louisiana residents could be left uninsured by the law's repeal, which will almost certainly lead to deaths as people forego regular medical screenings and begin to rely on emergency rooms for routine care.

Nonetheless, barreling through the law's repeal has been a top priority for President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans, though the president and Congress have begun to disagree on what should follow and how and when the law should be replaced. In closed-door meetings, lawmakers are beginning to express trepidation about "owning" health care, especially in the face of angry and, most of all, frightened constituents.

In the cemetery, a small crowd of about 50 people gathered on the grassy path between crumbling mausoleums to listen to stories of lives changed thanks to the law.

There was Red DeVecca, the elderly bass player who was able to buy ACA insurance for the first time just before he needed an expensive hernia operation. When ACA-subsidized state insurance markets opened, Whitney Babineaux was able to leave her full-benefits government job to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming an artist.

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As Sara Magana was growing up, her mother never had a job that offered insurance for family members. She was forced to juggle ad hoc and over-the-counter treatments to manage her asthma.

"I would just end up going to the ER and applying for charity coverage. I was freaking in college and poor," Magana said. Since receiving coverage under the ACA, she's been able to seek regular treatment from a primary care physician and can regularly afford the expensive steroid that keeps her asthma under control.

"I have to make sure that I'm alive to take care of my kid," she told Gambit. "I don't know what I'm going to do. It's just so frustrating."

Other speakers mentioned how their ACA insurance has mitigated the high cost of care, which is a problem even for common conditions. Anna Marcum, a historic preservation graduate student at Tulane University, pegged the treatments for her Type 1 Diabetes at $1600 a month — which doesn't include other supplies such as an insulin pump or blood glucose meter, or hospital stays related to complications, one of which would have been billed at $250,000 without insurance.

"I don't have much in savings," she said. "What am I going to do if I have to rely on my parents? They don't have bottomless pockets."

In Lafayette Cemetery No. 1.
  • In Lafayette Cemetery No. 1.

The protest opened and closed with a prayer from Rev. Fred Kammer, director of the Jesuit Social Research Institute. Kammer asked participants to bow their heads as he briefly prayed for strength "to be a voice for the voiceless ... to speak out for those whose health is endangered."

Kammer, a longtime veteran of Catholic health care advocacy in Washington, D.C., and in New Orleans, said he expects grave outcomes if the law is repealed.

"The Affordable Care Act is not perfect, but it is saving lives," he said. "We know what happens when health care disappears, and it will not be pretty. ... There will be preventable deaths."

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