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The Healthcare Debate Is About Who Lives and Who Dies

Jimmy Kimmel's moving monologue about his son's heart condition reminds us of the human cost of healthcare.

by Eve Peyser
May 3 2017, 2:24pm

Images via Jimmy Kimmel Live/ABC

Late-night talk shows are usually a sanitized wasteland of half-funny jokes and lazy political commentary, so it's a rarity when they evoke any sort of feeling. Nevertheless, it'd be hard to watch Jimmy Kimmel's opening monologue on Monday night and not be overcome. In a segment that has since gone viral, the host tearfully recounted his wife giving birth to their son Billy and discovering he had a congenital heart defect called tetralogy of Fallot with pulmonary atresia.

Kimmel described how afraid his family was and his newborn son's first heart surgery, and he encouraged viewers to donate to the Children's Hospital of Los Angeles. The deeply personal story ended with an inevitable political slant— the Republican healthcare bill currently being considered in the House would allow states to decide if people with preexisting conditions (like Billy Kimmel) could be charged more or shunted off into "high-risk pools" that can be expensive for patients.

"We were brought up to believe that we live in the greatest country in the world, but until a few years ago millions and millions of us had no access to health insurance at all," Kimmel said. "You know, before 2014 if you were born with congenital heart disease like my son was, there was a good chance you'd never be able to get health insurance because you had a preexisting condition. You were born with a preexisting condition, and if your parents didn't have medical insurance, you might not live long enough to even get denied because of a preexisting condition. If your baby is going to die and it doesn't have to, it shouldn't matter how much money you make."

Though it might unfortunate that we live in a society where it takes a celebrity's hardship to spark a national conversation, Kimmel's monologue was important because it took the healthcare debate— a complex subject full of technical terms and prone to abstraction—and made it personal. The country's healthcare system is confusing and imperfect, and it can be very difficult to sort out how individual reforms affect the bureaucracy we all have to move through. But at the end of the day, when we talk about healthcare, we're talking about who has the right to live and who doesn't.

On Monday, Alabama Republican Mo Brooks went on Jake Tapper to discuss the new GOP healthcare plan. "My understanding is that [the new proposal] will allow insurance companies to require people who have higher health care costs to contribute more to the insurance pool," Brooks said. In other words, he was suggesting that insurance companies could go back to charging Americans with preexisting conditions—a broad category that, depending on the state, in the past have included congenital birth defects, pregnancy, and being a victim of domestic violence—much higher rates than the rest of the population. According to Brooks, allowing companies to charge sick people more would reduce "the cost to those people who lead good lives, they're healthy, they've done the things to keep their bodies healthy. And right now, those are the people—who've done things the right way—that are seeing their costs skyrocketing."

Though Kimmel didn't directly reference Brooks or even criticize Republicans (he instead vaguely blamed partisanship), he showed why the congressman's argument is either incredibly misguided or straight-up disingenuous. It boggles my mind that this even needs to be said, but sometimes people are born sick or get sick without doing anything wrong. Anyone who's ever been sick or known someone with an illness could easily tell you that it's nobody's fault; some people get dealt a bad hand. Why should people get penalized for being unlucky?

Kimmel, of course, is very rich, meaning that his family is largely immune from any changes in our healthcare law, but he's not stupid. He understands that he's privileged and that most Americans don't have the luxury of being able to afford five or six-figure healthcare bills.

The debate about health insurance isn't really about taxes or risk pools or any of the bullshit jargon conservatives sling around in an attempt to justify their ideas. It's about you and me and our families. It's about class. But really, it's about who has the right to live and who get tossed aside.

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