Thursday, January 26, 2012

Why applauding, kissing and hugging Gabby Giffords isn't enough -- Jan. 26, 2012 column


The outpouring of respect, empathy and, yes, love for Gabrielle Giffords on Capitol Hill was heartfelt, inspirational – and inadequate.

The congresswoman from Arizona who was critically wounded a year ago by a would-be assassin rightly received thunderous applause, hugs and kisses Tuesday at the State of the Union address and a teary farewell Wednesday when she resigned from the House.

Democrat Nancy Pelosi, the former House speaker, called Giffords “the brightest star among us, the brightest star Congress has ever seen,” and Republican Eric Cantor, the majority leader, said he spoke for all his colleagues when he said, “We are inspired, hopeful and blessed for all the incredible progress Gabby has made in her recovery.”

On Jan. 8, 2011, Giffords was holding “Congress on Your Corner,” a meet-and-greet event, in Tucson when a gunman opened fire, killing six people, including a 9-year-old girl who just wanted to meet her congresswoman, and wounding Giffords and 12 others.

The horrific attack stunned the nation and Congress. There’s nothing like having a colleague shot in the head at close range on a Saturday morning back home to focus the mind of even the most cynical member of Congress. Every House member and senator knew he or she could have been the target. Ordinary citizens knew we could have been exercising our civic right at the wrong time.

Watching Giffords now, we marvel at how far she’s come, and we know that the unspeakable could happen to any of us or to our loved ones. We too could struggle to speak clearly, to walk haltingly and to cope with a right arm that doesn’t work the way it used to. Any of us.

Giffords is one of those rare and luminous elected officials who rose above the political fray. As an obscure Democratic House member, she had a reputation for working across party lines and, old fashioned as it sounds, for wanting to do what was right for her constituents and the country.

She now is a beacon of hope for the 1.7 million Americans a year who suffer traumatic brain injuries.

Medical experts say Giffords has been lucky. She has received America’s finest health care – from intensive care to rehabilitation. As a federal employee wounded on the job, she has coverage for rehabilitation services for as long as necessary.

Many other traumatic brain injury patients are not so fortunate. Much depends on what kind of insurance someone has, if any, where one lives, what medical facilities and even whether family advocates are nearby, according to the Brain Injury Association of America.

The bottom line is that while Medicare, Medicaid and most insurance plans cover brain surgery and intensive care, insurers tend to skimp on rehabilitation programs, which affect a patient’s quality of life, USA Today reported in March.

Hundreds of thousands of patients who lack coverage are discharged each year from hospitals to nursing homes or to languish in their beds during critical early months when their brains are more receptive to healing, USA reported.

The military’s treatment of brain injuries also has been criticized, but ProPublica, a non-profit investigative news organization, recently quoted a neurological surgeon who said military care of brain injuries is “a hundred times better than what goes on in the civilian sector.”

Gabby Giffords wants to change that. She believes anyone who has suffered a brain injury should have access to the same high quality care she has been fortunate to receive.

And so, members of Congress can applaud, hug and kiss Giffords all they want, but it’s not enough.

To support Giffords’ struggle in a meaningful way, lawmakers should endorse, not repeal, the Affordable Care Act, also derisively known as ObamaCare. The law says some rehabilitation services must be included in essential benefit packages that go into effect in 2014 for Medicaid and companies participating in insurance exchanges.

The Obama administration has said it’ll leave details of those packages to the states, but to honor Gabby Giffords, the packages should specifically cover rehabilitation for traumatic brain injuries. It’s the right thing to do.

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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