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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Melanie Shouse: An Inspiring Advocate for Health Care Rights

For the past month, Families USA's Stand Up for Health Care has been sharing some of our historical health care heroes, outlining their views on how access to quality, affordable health care is a foundation for a more just society.

But, it is our modern day health care heroes – advocates who fight for access to quality care in communities across the country, volunteers who take care of the disadvantaged and sick, and many others – who are carrying forth the vision of our historical heroes and helping to advance the cause of social justice today. These heroes deserve just as much praise and recognition. So today, we unveil the first of our modern day heroes, Melanie Shouse.

On January 30, 2010, Melanie Shouse lost her battle with breast cancer. But her tireless efforts and activism in the face of her disease helped paved the way for health care reform – a cause she took up so that others would never have to suffer her fate. Here is her story, in her own words:

My name is Melanie Shouse, and I am a breast cancer survivor. Four years ago, at age 37, I was an entrepreneur struggling to grow my small business, and only able to afford a catastrophic health insurance policy with co-pays and deductibles nearing ten thousand dollars. I had to take the ultimate risk with my health in order to chase the American Dream, like so many small business owners in America today. So when I first felt a small lump, denial seemed the only option available to me.

But as our nation has learned so painfully over the last eight years, denial only leads to catastrophe. In October 2005, I was forced to admit reality by walking into Siteman Cancer Center for the dreaded diagnosis. But by this time, the cancer had spread throughout my body to bone, lungs, and liver. It was now classified as Stage 4 breast cancer, the kind you don't recover from. My chance of survival was pegged at just 13% as a result of the delay in diagnosis and treatment caused by inadequate health coverage.

My worries were not limited to my health, however. I had no savings and no real assets to cover the monumental costs associated with these expensive treatments. And with this prize-winning pre-existing condition, I had no opportunity to seek a better private health plan, as I was now shut out of the market. Having no other choice, I quickly turned to our public Missouri Medicaid program, and within days I received this Medicaid card that would help save my life. Now I could walk into one of the top cancer centers in the world right up the street here and receive top-notch care without having to sell a kidney to cover the insurance deductible!

Melanie recognized the fundamental inequities in our health care system, and used her disease and her treatment as inspiration in her fight to advocate for the countless others who shared her circumstances. She became active in the breast cancer community, graduating from Project LEAD and working with research groups such as the Susan Komen St. Louis Research Advocate Committee. She founded a grassroots initiative called M-SLICE (Missouri St. Louis Coalition for Inclusion and Equity) to fight for the social and economic development of traditionally marginalized groups in the community. Melanie mustered all her energy into appearing at countless health care rallies. Her words passionately attracted the attention and sentiments of Americans across the country.

Even though she was facing a relapse and little hope for her own survival, she continued to emit an incredible sense of optimism for the future and faith in the abilities of her community to work together. She died on January 30, 2010, having inspired thousands.

It wouldn't be right to say that Melanie Shouse lost her battle against cancer. Today, we should give credit to people like her, who stand at the frontline, always active and always thoughtful. Her victory is clear: Insurance companies will never again be able to determine the fate of her fellow Americans. And thanks to the new health care bill, pre-existing conditions will never permit insurance companies to rescind coverage when a person needs it most. But most importantly, Melanie has left an inspiring legacy in the countless lives she touched.

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