“Without Obamacare, My Husband Would Be Dead.”

Meet the woman who confronted Senator Cotton at a town hall last week in northwestern Arkansas.

Debby and her husband, Mike, live with their son in a 1-bedroom RV in northwest Arkansas. Debby is her husband’s primary caregiver: he has Alzheimer’s, Dementia, and has had multiple heart surgeries. Most days, Mike has difficulty remembering things that happened just a few hours earlier. Debby tries to make the most of the moments when Mike can recall his memories of the two of them together. He’s suffered multiple heart attacks, had bypass surgery, and requires the care of specialists, therapists, and various medications. “Without Obamacare,” Debby insists, “my husband would be dead.”

Debby and her husband, Mike

You might recognize Debby from a town hall meeting last week, hosted by Senator Cotton. In her passionate plea that’s since gone viral, Debby stood up and confronted the Senator, insisting that he give a “yes” or “no” answer to her request to meet and hear how the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (commonly referred to as the ACA or Obamacare) has saved her husband’s life.

“You want to stand there with [my husband dying] at home and expect us to be calm, cool, and collected. Well, what kind of insurance do you have?”

“My husband, with Dementia, Alzheimer’s, plus multiple, multiple other things,” she began, “and you want to stand there with him at home and expect us to be calm, cool, and collected. Well, what kind of insurance do you have?” The auditorium erupted in cheers. Here’s the exchange that took place in the packed auditorium:

“So Ma’am…” When pushed for a “yes” or “no” response, he agreed, but deferred the meeting details to members of his staff to figure out.

While grass-roots activist groups have sprung up in every district in the country, many Republicans, including President Trump, have been dismissive of these people and labeled them paid activists. But Debby is not a paid or staged activist: she and her husband are real people, struggling to navigate the complex maze of a highly politicized healthcare system — and their lives are at stake.

In a Tweet earlier this week, Trump attempted to write off the town hall crowds as activists

After the town hall meeting, Senator Cotton’s staff did reach out to set up a meeting her, but Debby, who’s struggling financially and caring for her dying husband, wonders, “Why is it that I’ve got to travel all the way to Washington, D.C., when his office is just a few doors down from me?”

We wanted to give Debby a chance to tell her story — to help us all better understand her family’s struggle for survival. And we hope that soon, Tom Cotton will too.

Debby doesn’t know it, but we’ve started a GoFundMe Page for her and her family. 100% of the proceeds will go to Debby to help her get to D.C. Anything not needed for that trip will go to help pay Mike’s medical bills.

“It’s Personal For Me. It’s Personal for My Family.”

Debby has been interested in politics for her entire life. She keeps her maiden name — Washington — because she can trace her family’s lineage back to the first President of the United States. Her father, who served as a local elected official, was a model for her career of service: Debby worked as a nurse at a retirement home in order to put herself through college, was a special education teacher for years, and eventually became a paralegal advocate for children and others with disabilities. She and her husband are now retired and struggling to live on a combination of her small pension, Social Security, and Medicaid.

Last Wednesday night, when Debby confronted her congressional representative, Tom Cotton, at a town hall meeting, she wanted to be clear that she was there with one agenda: her own.

“I didn’t know anyone there. I was there with my own story. My own interest. It’s personal for me,” she said. “It’s personal for my family.” Debby is battling her own health issues — she’s been diagnosed with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD) Syndrome — but it is clear that her focus is her husband’s survival. Years ago, Debby helped disabled children get public aid; now retired, she spends her days navigating the complex web of Social Security, Disability, Medicare, and Medicaid in hopes that Mike can continue to receive the care he needs.

“My Husband and I Were Brought Together for a Reason”

A major turning point in Debby’s life happened in the late 1980’s, when she sought help for her and her son, who were stuck in an abusive relationship. “It was a mother’s nightmare,” she reflected. “And it took a significant toll on me. There was so much pain that I was experiencing.”

She struggled with court costs, divorce, and the trauma of being an abuse victim, but continued to work as a special education teacher and social worker. After her divorce, Debby and her son sought treatment at a nearby clinic.

It was there that Debby met Mike, who was recovering from alcoholism and addiction — problems that began after a catastrophic accident years before that left him nearly paralyzed. While excavating a portion of land for the highway 71 construction project, he was rolled down a mountain and buried alive under dirt. Doctors didn’t give him much of a chance at ever walking again.

“He proved them wrong. He was a warrior. He walked again after 2 and a half years of physical therapy.” The tragic accident had a life-long effect on Debby’s husband, leaving him unable to work because of his injury and forcing him to go on disability. “I believe we were brought together for a reason,” Debby says.

One of their favorite memories is adventuring in the RV they now call home. “We had to sell our house, but we wanted to make the most of it,” Debby remembers. “And so we wanted to go and tour the country.” They had dreams of seeing the US together on the highways Mike had helped build. “But it ended up that it was too expensive to travel.”

“We Were Living on Samples from Doctors”

Before the ACA, Debby and her husband were turned down by every insurance provider available and were surviving on a small Social Security and Disability income. “We were living off of the benefits we earned,” says Debby, who paid into social security since she began working as a young teenager. “We both worked for a long time — paid into the system a long time before we got sick.”

“I was struggling. I couldn’t make it. Insurances turned me down because I had pre-existing conditions,” Debby said. “They didn’t care. They did not care. We were going to the doctor and couldn’t afford the medication — they have a form you fill out and if you qualify based on income, the doctors can give you samples. So for a while, that’s all we had.”

When her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimers and Dementia, they couldn’t afford the medication. “Sometimes, we’d take one but not be able to take the other. We had to choose which ones we took and which ones we couldn’t afford.”

Unable to qualify for insurance, they survived by working with doctors and providers to pay their bills off in increments, as they could afford them. Then, in 1999, Debby was in a car accident. She had to stop working and go on Social Security and disability temporarily. “I’ve had to humble myself,” Debbie admits. “I was in a pit financially. I was dedicated to what I do.” Instead of helping children with disabilities fill out forms to get aid, she was now filling them out for herself.

Debby was back at work two years later, but her finances improved just enough to disqualify her from the benefits she had been receiving. “We got cut off because we were doing just a little bit better,” Debbie reflected. “But we still had constant hospitalizations and doctors’ appointments.” Mike was having heart problems and needed surgery, and the basic Social Security Insurance wasn’t enough. “When they cut us off from Medicaid, it put us into a whole different type of financial hardship.”

Available vs. Affordable Care

When the Affordable Care Act was Passed in 2010, it gave Debby and her husband access to insurance for the first time in over a decade. By prohibiting companies from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions and expanding medicaid to states like Arkansas, millions of Americans now had access to better care — including Debby and her family.

But even though coverage was available for Debby through a Medicare Advantage plan, the financial burden placed on her family by co-pays and deductibles still made it hard to justify going to the doctor when she could hardly afford the gas for the trip.

To make matters even more complicated, it was hard to find doctors and hospitals in her area that accepted her Medicare Advantage plan. “I spent hours and hours looking at plans and trying to find out which doctors we could go to,” she remembers. When she finally found a doctor that would accept her plan, she called to make an appointment, only to discover that the doctor wouldn’t actually accept her insurance.

Debby switched plans several times and eventually found coverage that was a significant improvement in the care her family receives. Her current coverage for herself and her husband costs them $68 per month — which isn’t an insignificant figure when she can “barely afford toilet paper.” And that plan doesn’t cover everything: Debby purchased supplemental insurance that was offered by AARP (but has since been discontinued) to help pay for hospital visits.

Can the Republicans do any better? We struggle, even with how many appointments we have. We can’t afford a specialist, two specialists — because our copay is our gas, our food money. We’re in the income bracket Republicans aren’t thinking about.

Now, Debby and her husband work with a patient advocate, who checks in monthly to make sure that they’re taking preventative steps to avoid heath crises. The plan also delivers medications by mail, which saves them a costly trip to the doctors’ offices and pharmacies. “I am so thankful for the ACA,” she says. “Our plan has wellness options and we’re part of a network. We’re not house-bound.”

Republicans are threatening to repeal the ACA without offering a better alternative, and this makes Debby and her husband understandably nervous. “We need to keep what is positive and good about [the ACA] and work with the doctors, insurance companies, patients, and politicians — everyone needs to work together — to improve it.”

Even though insurance companies are prohibited from disqualifying people like Debby and Mike due to pre-existing conditions and the premiums are more affordable with the help of Medicaid, it’s still a struggle to pay for co-pays, deductibles, and medications.

“I Want to Tell You What Put Me on Fire. May I Do That?”

During our interview, Debby reflected on the exchange with Senator Cotton and the events that led up to it. She reiterated that she knew no one at the meeting, and attended because she is passionate about protecting her family and their access to affordable health care. She paused for a moment before saying, “I want to tell you what put me on fire. May I do that?”

“That lovely woman that shared her health issue story, was definitely shrugged off and treated like it was nothing. Senator Tom Cotton showed no compassion. My family is very passionate about compassion. We Americans are known for our compassion. And Senator Tom Cotton showed none of it.”

We Americans are known for our compassion. And Senator Tom Cotton showed none of it.

“I saw up there the reflection of Donald Trump, our leader, when he mocked that reporter who had an impairment. How dare he. As a Special Education Professional, Behavior Hospital Professional, I am offended. As a person with disabilities myself, I am offended. He did the wrong thing not showing compassion. There’s all kinds of things he could have done and not shrug her off and not answer her question.”

During the campaign, Donald Trump mocked a disabled reporter.

Her husband Mike is equally disappointed with our new president. His father was a decorated veteran who served in WWII and survived the Bataan Death March. He was a POW for 7 years, and took offense when Trump questioned Senator McCain’s heroism.

One of Mike’s proudest memories is of his father’s service in WWII.

With Mike’s fading health, Debby and her family face an uncertain future. But there’s one thing that she knows for sure: she and her family need health insurance coverage, and she’s ready to fight for it.

“I did not talk down to him. I did not demean him. I did not degrade him,” Debby says of her exchange with Senator Cotton. She stresses, “This isn’t a Republican, Democrat, Independent issue — this is a people issue. There’s no closure yet. And there won’t be, until they do what they need to do to take care of struggling families.”

She knows that there will never be a perfect system, but is fearful that without the ACA, her husband will die. “My husband has had many heart attacks — many stents. He’s had bypass surgery. He is a warrior. He is trying to hang on and make a difference. We are struggling financially, but we have come together.”

Since the new administration has taken office, Mike’s doctor stopped letting him be flexible with payments. For the first time he’s been barred from meeting with his specialist until his bills are paid in full — which leaves him at risk without the preventative care he needs.

Mike’s reason for survival, he says, is to share his story with others who struggle with alcohol and addiction: “You too can do this. Do not ever give up.”

Lastly, Debby hopes she’ll have a chance to meet face to face with President Trump. “I want to look at Donald Trump in the eye and have him tell me I’m fake. That I’m paid. I want apologies from the Republican party who’s saying that. I’m not letting go of this.”

Debby doesn’t know it, but we’ve started a GoFundMe Page for her and her family. 100% of the proceeds will go to Debby to help her get to D.C. Anything not needed for that trip will go to help pay Mike’s medical bills.
Debby doesn’t know we’re doing this campaign — but let’s show the world she’s not a “paid protester” and help her get to Washington, D.C.!
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