October 31, 2002

Harry and Louise: The Missing Years

Warren Pease

As the hotly contested Measure 23 campaign headed into the home stretch, it seemed like a good time to revisit my old pals Harry and Louise. You remember them; they were the managed care industry's mascots in the early '90s and, according to industry observers, had more to do with sinking the 1994 Clinton health care proposal than all the rest of the negative campaigning combined.

Most people naturally assumed Harry and Louise were creatures of the PR and advertising industries. They're very much alive, however; they were friends of my parents from way back when. They were frequent guests at our house when I was a kid and we at theirs.

They were always doing just a little bit better than my folks, so we gradually drifted apart the way people seem to when their fortunes head in opposite directions.

Still, I had stayed in touch with them over the years and, when they ended up in Oregon, I thought it might be time to check in with them again. I hadn't seen them since about 1997 and, at the time, things were going pretty well. Their house was paid for, their stock portfolios were growing, Harry had been promoted to a regional management position, Louise had taken up quilting and golf, and Harry was making noises about retiring to a golf course community by 2004.

So you can imagine my shock when I looked them up at their new Oregon place a couple of months ago. Gone were dreams of the bungalow on the seventh fairway. They'd been replaced by a used doublewide in a squalid trailer park well within earshot of I-5. Louise was at the doctor's and Harry brought me up to speed.

He'd been laid off from his job in early 2001, which not only cut his income to near zero, but cut off his and Louise's health care coverage as well. "My COBRA coverage ran out this June, but that's not even the worst part," he said. "Louise has breast cancer. She had a series of operations last December, while we still had coverage thank God, but she needs another operation and a round of chemo to stay in remission and I don't see how we can afford it. We've sold the house to raise cash, but I don't even think that's going to cover her expenses. I honestly don't know what the hell we're going to do."

Harry and Louise go Chapter 13
I picked up a copy of the local paper a few weeks ago and saw a brief news story describing how medical expenses drove Harry and Louise into bankruptcy court. I called them up and they confirmed what I'd read.

I asked them if they knew medical expenses are the leading cause of bankruptcy in the US -- and nowhere else in the civilized world. They hadn't heard that one, but they were less interested in stats than in where to come up with medical and legal fees.

We rang off after a short conversation that I can only describe as surly and panicky -- a drastic change from the usual.

Harry and Louise Turn to Crime
The news just gets worse. Harry has been busted for sales of controlled substances -- in this case, Demerol, which Louise was using to try to control the pain from her untreated breast cancer.

She and Harry agreed that they needed money more than pain relief, so Harry apparently joined the bangers and the mules on a well-known drug commerce corner. The cops pulled a sweep and, of course, Harry was the only guy there who couldn't do the 60-yard dash in less than seven seconds. So the cops rousted him.

His bail was insanely high, given his age and the reasons for his behavior. So he stayed in the local lock-up for 10 days until his case finally came up. He was sentenced to time served and a $10,000 fine (which of course he can't possibly pay), and Harry and Louise were left wondering what the hell to do next.

Harry and Louise Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide Pact
The end came abruptly but not unexpectedly. Harry and Louise were always decent people with a profound sense of pride in the American system and their place in it. When that very system boomeranged on them, they couldn't handle it. Nor could they envision an old age of poverty, untreated disease and constant pain.

The papers and local newscasts gave the story minimal, though dignified, coverage. But the suicide note got the headlines. With their last earthly acts, Harry and Louise went down swinging, rejecting an "unworkable, utopian" single-payer system and defiantly embracing the U.S. employment-based health care model.

"At least we didn't lose our choice of doctors or buy into a system that would have rationed health care, created an army of bureaucrats to make health care decisions and turned medical care over to the government," the note read. Just so.

Next time: Harry and Louise go to hell. As John Prine might have written, their Blue Cross cards won't get them into heaven anymore.

# # #

The author is a member of the Portland Yes on Measure 23 steering committee. Email comments to war_on_peas@yahoo.com

Copyright SRC, Inc. 2002. All rights reserved.

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