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The pretty face of health reform

By Carol Gentry
7/2/2009 © Health News Florida

Health-care advocacy never looked this good.

Summer DeMichael of Navarre Beach, a haunting beauty who has broadcasting training and acting experience, is one of seven “real people” demanding that Congress take action on health reform in commercials that began airing nationwide this week on cable TV. (See it here.)

Proving it's true that politics makes strange bedfellows, the ads are co-sponsored by the consumer group Families USA and the trade association for the drug industry, the Pharmaceutical Research Manufacturers Association (PHRMA). 

The people who appear in the commercials aren't acting when they talk about their troubles in the health-care system. They manage to look appealing despite being sick, worried, or in debt.

For Summer DeMichael, 25, it’s all of the above. She can’t qualify for health insurance because she has Crohn’s disease, a serious auto-immune disorder that causes inflammation of the intestines. 
 
The illness was diagnosed by a gastroenterologist in Pensacola last summer when she came to Gulf Breeze Hospital's emergency room and ended up staying eight days. She had been treated at the Cleveland Clinic back in Ohio before moving to Florida, she said, but it wasn't clear whether her problems were caused by Epstein-Barr virus, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia or something else.

Summer and her husband Anthony DeMichael moved to Navarre Beach in December 2007 because her family had always summered there when she was growing up and she loved it. They had thought they could get jobs without too much trouble, but ran into a bad economy and a flare-up of Summer's illness that kept her close to the bathroom.

She can’t stay well enough to work because she doesn’t have access to specialty care and can’t afford the $1,200-a-month drugs to keep her inflammation under control , she told Health News Florida. The Santa Rosa County Community Clinic sees her on a sliding scale for just $5 a visit, she says, but there isn’t a specialist there who knows how to treat her disease. She's applied to the "We Care" program, sponsored by the county medical society, in hopes there will be a gastroenterologist who will see her without charge.

She says she owes the hospital about $40,000 for the stay in October and another emergency visit in June. With other medical bills through the years, she said, she owes a total of about $250,000. She and Anthony, a network IT consultant who has been able to find only a part-time job at the UPS store, have had to seek charity to avoid eviction and are facing bankruptcy, they say. 

All those details made her story ideal for the Families USA/PhRMA commercial; young people can identify with her plight. But there's no time for all those details in a 32-second commercial that features three other people, as well.

In the ad, right after a man who talks about having cancer, Summer looks straight into the camera and says, simply, “I couldn’t work because I was sick, and I couldn’t get better because I didn’t have health insurance.”

Her youthful face is followed by a couple of people who are middle-aged, then Summer returns.

“I think Americans deserve better,” she says, delivering the kicker. “This is one promise the politicians need to keep.”

The multimillion-dollar ad campaign urges lawmakers to pass legislation for quality, affordable health care for all Americans. It’s timed to air on CNN, Fox and MSNBC while lawmakers are on break back home and preparing for the big push on health reform when they return to Washington.

Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, said his group has found common ground with PhRMA on three themes:

--Families should be eligible for Medicaid with incomes up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level ($29,300 for a famiy of four).

--Those who can’t get Medicaid should be eligible for sliding-scale subsidies for private coverage.

--There should be a cap on the out-of-pocket expenses.

PhRMA is financing the ad buys. Families USA’s job was to find the people. 

For many years, the consumer group has kept a “story bank” of horrible encounters with the health-care system and insurance companies. A young staffer found compelling stories and vetted them. Summer DeMichael was among those invited to Washington to tell their stories on camera.

There was never any suggestion of hiring actors, said Pollack. “We wanted to have real people.” 

--Carol Gentry can be reached at 727-410-3266 or at this e-mail address.