At a recent rally, DonnaMarie Woodson stepped to a microphone outside the Charlotte office of U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis. The Republican senator wasn’t there, but she told her story anyway, in front of more than 200 protesters, urging Congress not to repeal the Affordable Care Act because it has saved lives – including her own.
If she hadn’t been insured through the ACA, she said she probably wouldn’t have had screening tests that led to her diagnoses with colon cancer and breast cancer in 2015. And without timely treatment, Woodson, 61, said, “I could have died.”
Now that she’s recovered, with those “pre-existing conditions” on her medical record, she’s fighting against the push by Republican congressional leaders and supporters of President Donald Trump to dismantle the ACA.
“We are not going to stand here and let the Republican regime take away health care,” Woodson told protesters. “It’s just immoral.”
At recent town halls across the country, citizens like Woodson have been pressuring lawmakers to preserve “Obamacare,” the unofficial name for former President Barack Obama’s signature health reform law that provided insurance for an additional 20 million Americans.
Some lawmakers, including Tillis, have avoided in-person meetings where they could be yelled at by angry constituents. Asked for comment about repealing the ACA, Tillis’ office sent this statement: “Senator Tillis is committed to working across the aisle to achieve health care reform that will control costs, increase choices, and prioritize the specific healthcare needs of North Carolina families. Any replacement plan must specifically address the need for the millions of Americans with preexisting conditions to have access to affordable health care.”
Trump continues to call the ACA a “disaster” – in part because some insurers have left the marketplace and because premiums for some buyers have skyrocketed. But the zeal for repeal has slowed because Republicans haven’t been able to agree on a replacement.
Until details are worked out, Trump and other Republicans promise to keep the ACA’s popular features, such as protection for those with pre-existing conditions, while also eliminating the mandate to buy insurance and reducing the cost of health care.
“There’s no way to keep those (popular) provisions and get rid of the rest,” Woodson said. “You have to have the mandate so you don’t just have a pool of sick people.…What they need to be doing is looking at how to fix the parts that could be working better.”
Woodson became an ACA advocate after her family suffered an economic setback during the Great Recession of 2008. They were living in Minneapolis when her husband, Kevan, lost his upper management job at 3M, along with the couple’s health insurance.
The next year, they moved to Charlotte for a warmer climate, better job opportunities and “a place to start over.” They downsized from a 4,000-square-foot house to a two-bedroom apartment. But they continued to struggle. Kevan Woodson worked in a grocery store deli before finding a non-management sales job.
During the transition, DonnaMarie Woodson went without annual mammograms for several years and postponed a colonoscopy. When the ACA became available in 2014, the couple signed up, thankful that their lower income made them eligible for a $933 federal subsidy that gave them an affordable monthly premium of $167.
When Woodson finally had her colonoscopy, it detected Stage 3 colon cancer. On a related CT scan, her doctors noticed what was later confirmed to be breast cancer. She had surgery and chemotherapy for the colon cancer, followed by two operations and radiation for the breast cancer. Even with insurance, Woodson and her husband owed $4,000, which they’re paying off monthly.
For 2017, the Woodsons continue to have ACA insurance. This year, they qualified for a subsidy of $2,264 that resulted in a monthly premium of $178.
Woodson continues to get checkups to make sure the cancer has not returned. But she worries that, if the ACA is repealed, she might not be able to buy insurance again because of her cancer history.
“That’s why I’m terrified,” she said. “You can’t just say get rid of it and forget the people who will die without having insurance.”
Woodson empathizes with some of the ACA critics – people who don’t have employer-sponsored insurance, earn too much to qualify for subsidies, and face huge premium increases. “People are paying through the nose,” she said. “I fully understand their anger. (The ACA) needs to be overhauled. It is not perfect by any means. (But) nobody’s done anything to make any improvements to it.”
That’s why she shows up at Tillis’ office every week, arguing that health insurance should be available to everyone – even to those who don’t yet need it.
“Things can flip in an instant,” Woodson said. “They did for me.”