'I Don’t Want To Die': Desperate Pleas For Obamacare From NJ

Eric Kiefer
·7 min read

NEWARK, NJ — Stephanie Vigario spent 35 days hooked up to a ventilator after contracting the coronavirus. But after struggling through a harrowing two months in the hospital, the 31-year-old pharmacy technician has emerged from her COVID-19 battle with a new understanding of what’s important in life, such as her husband, who also endured a fight with the virus.

Unfortunately, the Newark resident is also learning to adjust to another new normal, she says: a pre-existing condition. And it may mean the frontline, essential worker will lose her health care.

Think it’s unfair? Buckle up – she’s not alone, according to U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez.

On Thursday, Menendez and his Democratic peer Sen. Cory Booker hosted a virtual roundtable with several Garden State residents who are afraid they’ll lose their coverage if the Affordable Care Act (ACA), otherwise known as Obamacare, is overturned.

Since former President Barack Obama signed it into law in 2010, the ACA has provided millions of Americans a way to see their doctors without taking on crushing debt. But many experts and advocates say the ACA – which faces a Supreme Court challenge a week after the election – will be at risk if Amy Coney Barrett, President Donald Trump’s nominee to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is confirmed for the nation’s highest court.

It’s uncertain what repealing Obamacare would mean when it comes to COVID-19 as a pre-existing condition, although some experts and advocates warn it would cause a financial tsunami for people like Vigario.

But either way, the stakes are dire, according to Menendez, who helped to write the ACA as a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee.

Nationwide, the ACA has brought health coverage to more than 20 million Americans who didn’t have it before, including more than 750,000 New Jersey residents. It has also protected 135 million people with pre-existing conditions, including 3.8 million in the Garden State, Menendez said.

Some of those residents spoke up during Thursday’s roundtable, offering poignant pleas to keep Obamacare intact.

Scott Chesney, a married father of two from Verona, was paralyzed from the waist down when he was 15. Now he faces a lifetime of expensive medical needs, but he’s refused to let it control his life.

Chesney – who has become well-known for his activism throughout Essex County – is also an ambassador for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, speaking up for others dealing with paralysis and serious disabilities.

“I was 15 when I woke up one day, paralyzed, and 35 years later, I sit in this wheelchair,” Chesney said.

Aging with a disability, a pre-existing condition, is tough. “Your body breaks down,” Chesney explained.

Thankfully, his wife has health insurance. But the inspiring activist is worried that if the ACA is nixed, it will be a serious problem for his fellow New Jersey residents who aren’t as fortunate.

“We can’t allow this to happen,” Chesney said.

Another Essex County resident, Gloria Nieves of Newark, works part-time and doesn’t qualify for employer-based health insurance.

Nieves, who has asthma and diabetes, gets her coverage through the ACA marketplace. So do several pregnant women that’s she’s met, said Nieves, who serves as a community doula in the Sister to Sister Community Doulas of Essex County.

“I hear a lot of the women that I help about their bills, and without the Affordable Care Act they wouldn’t be able to afford prenatal and labor costs,” Nieves said. “That’s worrisome because if [they] can’t get prenatal care, we’re back to square one.”

The stories go on.

Judy and Abe Rosenstein of Edison are both on Medicare, but have high prescription drug costs for medications to treat diabetes and a kidney transplant. But they say they can only afford them in part because the ACA closed the so-called Medicare Part D “donut hole,” which had left many seniors choosing between their lifesaving medications and paying for rent or food.

Daria Caldwell of Flemington recently lost her job during the pandemic, at the same time she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a treatable, but incurable blood cancer.

“Without the ACA to use as gap insurance in between, I will have no medical or prescription coverage for nearly a year and a half before I can get Medicare,” Caldwell said. “Even if some company does offer to insure me, with the pre-existing conditions, it would be cost prohibitive and I will be subject to lifetime caps.”

“Dissolving the ACA would cost me my life,” Caldwell emphasized. “That sounds dramatic because it is. I don’t want to die but I feel like a price tag has been put on my head and the constant threat is beyond anything I thought I would ever have to endure. It’s nearly as devastating as the diagnosis itself.”

Angie Tyson Dixon of Camden suffers from epilepsy, and relies on the ACA marketplace for her health care and prescription drug coverage so she can afford to raise her children.

“I take medication for my epilepsy three times a day,” Dixon said. “Without it, I would suffer up to 15 seizures each day. I lost my mother because she didn’t have the insurance she needed, and we can’t go back to a time without it.”

Watch the full video of Thursday’s roundtable below.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, which includes Booker, narrowly advanced Barrett’s nomination on Thursday, with the 12 Republicans on the panel voting to approve and the 10 Democratic senators boycotting the vote in protest. A full Senate vote is expected next week.

If Barrett becomes a Supreme Court justice, it would give conservatives a six to three majority on the court. And if that happens, it could spell disaster for Obamacare, Sen. Menendez says.

“The next Supreme Court justice will likely determine the fate of the Affordable Care Act,” the senator said bluntly during Thursday’s roundtable.

Menendez accused Republicans of being “hell-bent” on pushing through Barrett’s confirmation in time for the November election, as well as for arguments on a key Trump Administration challenge to the ACA scheduled a week afterwards.

“They tried to repeal it and they failed,” Menendez said of his Republican peers. “Now they’re hoping the Supreme Court will do their dirty work because they still, a decade later, have no plan.”

Booker agreed, blasting Senate Republicans for rushing through an “illegitimate process” and putting the health of 150 million Americans with pre-existing conditions on the line amid a global pandemic.

“For millions of Americans, a future without the ACA looks like being forced to sell your house if you want to afford your health care,” Booker charged. “It looks like not having access to a doctor when you’re sick … it looks like having to choose between paying for groceries and paying for medicine.”

“As we face the worst public health crisis in our lifetimes, it would be cruel and reckless to force this many Americans – including many New Jerseyans – to potentially face losing their health care,” Booker said.

Send local news tips and correction requests to eric.kiefer@patch.com

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This article originally appeared on the Newark Patch