On the day the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the central provisions of the federal health care overhaul he has championed as Maryland's most visible public health official, Dr. Peter Beilenson revealed, publicly and for the first time, that he has Parkinson's disease. He brought it up during my WYPR radio show Thursday afternoon, and he mentioned it to television reporters who chased him for a sound bite after the court's historic ruling.
"I was diagnosed five years ago," said Beilenson, 52, the chief health officer of Howard County and former health commissioner of Baltimore. "Actually, I self-diagnosed and had it confirmed by a specialist."
In 2006, after leaving his city post, Beilenson ran unsuccessfully for Congress. During and after the campaign, he says, he wrote 4,000 thank-you notes to supporters, and he wrote them by hand. That's when he started to suspect something was wrong: His cursive started getting smaller, and the writing was more of a struggle. When he typed letters, his right hand couldn't keep up with the left, and when he turned his wrist, Beilenson experienced what he called "cog-wheel rigidity." He realized he had the incurable disease.
A neurologist confirmed early-onset Parkinson's.
Except for his family and the man he went to work for after the 2006 election, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, Beilenson told no one about the diagnosis. He went about his business, establishing Healthy Howard, the initiative — "Obamacare" in miniature — that has made health care available to uninsured county residents and brought Beilenson more of the positive national attention he first gained as a hard-charging and innovative health commissioner in Baltimore.
He chose to go public with his personal health problem on the day of the Supreme Court's ruling to make a couple of points:
•Without health insurance, Beilenson would be paying $5,000 a year for the three medications that stabilize his body and make it possible for him to continue to work. "People who do not have health insurance," he says, "have to pay the full amount for prescriptions because they have no insurance company negotiating the cost for them. With my health insurance, I pay only $25 for a three-month supply of pharmaceuticals that would cost an uninsured person well over $1,000."
•Anybody can develop health problems; everybody needs access to affordable care. "I'm sick of the vilification of the uninsured by opponents of Obamacare," he says. "I'm sick of people like Rush Limbaugh, who have great health insurance, complaining that people who don't have insurance are just a bunch of freeloaders. Eighty percent of the people without insurance work — they're working people or members of working families, poor or middle-income. The leading cause of personal bankruptcy in this country is the high cost of health care. Rush, members of the Supreme Court, members of Congress, me and millions of other Americans have health insurance; we enjoy great health insurance."
So, now that the Supreme Court has ruled on the matter, the nation steps decidedly closer to the comprehensive coverage that most developed nations have had in place for generations. Millions of Americans will benefit from the Affordable Care Act — those who presently have no coverage and the rest of us. The rest of us, at least theoretically, will in time be relieved of the burden of the cost of treating the millions who can't afford, or refuse to buy, insurance.
After he became health officer for Howard County, the tall and fit Beilenson led the effort to build the Healthy Howard plan. It provides health care, at modest premiums, to individuals and working-class families who earn too much to be eligible for Medicaid and too little to be able to afford private insurance. Some 1,700 people have benefited from Beilenson's initiative, and another 7,000 have enrolled in The Door to Health Care, another Howard County program that introduces people to health benefits they didn't know they were eligible for.
So you get this? It's all about getting people to take care of themselves — and making it affordable. It's the ambition of one county in Maryland; it should be the ambition of a nation And, now — shock of shocks — the John Roberts Supreme Court says we can proceed with that. Because of Obamacare, more Americans might enjoy healthier lives.
The doctor, meanwhile, takes care of himself. "I work out five days a week still," Beilenson says. "I get on the elliptical. ... It's good for me."
And he takes his meds, of course, purchased through his excellent insurance plan. He'll be taking those meds for a very long time.
"What would happen to me otherwise?" he asks. "If I didn't have a job with benefits, if I couldn't afford insurance, and the medicine? What would happen?"