Notes From The Balcony

Progressive Reflections on Post-Modern Living in a Multifaith Age

In Memory of Beth Rickey

Posted by John Montgomery on September 19, 2009

In the midst of the current health care debate (if you can call it that), researchers from Harvard have published a new study suggesting that almost 45,000 unnecessary deaths per year can be associated with the lack of health insurance.

The study, conducted at Harvard Medical School and Cambridge Health Alliance, found that uninsured, working-age Americans have a 40 percent higher risk of death than their privately insured counterparts, up from a 25 percent excess death rate found in 1993.

“The uninsured have a higher risk of death when compared to the privately insured, even after taking into account socioeconomics, health behaviors, and baseline health,” said lead author Andrew Wilper M.D., who currently teaches at the University of Washington School of Medicine.. “We doctors have many new ways to prevent deaths from hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease — but only if patients can get into our offices and afford their medications.”

CNN’s  reporting about the release of this study notes not surprisingly that there have been questions raised about  the findings

Two authors of the Harvard study, Himmelstein and Dr. Steffie Woolhandler are co-founders of the Physicians for a National Health Program, which supports government-backed “single-payer” health coverage.

The National Center for Policy Analysis, which backs “free-market” health care reform, calls the Harvard research flawed.

“The findings in this research are based on faulty methodology and the death risk is significantly overstated,” said John C. Goodman, the president of the NCPA in a statement. But Goodman did note there is “a genuine crisis of the uninsured in this country.” [my emphasis]

At this point, I will let others sort out the fine points of methodology and research perspectives. Nevertheless, it is so easy to get caught up in the theory and miss the point that this is about real people. I found the CNN article helpful in that regard as it begins with the story of the death of actual persons.

“A freelance cameraman’s appendix ruptured and by the time he was admitted to surgery, it was too late. A self-employed mother of two is found dead in bed from undiagnosed heart disease. A 26-year-old aspiring fashion designer collapsed in her bathroom after feeling unusually fatigued for days.”

This issue was brought closer home to me this week as I received a letter from my friend and colleague Pat Rickey Tuecke about the passing of her cousin, Debbie Rickey in a cheap motel in Sante Fe. Beth Rickey was a sad casualty of a broken health care system. Having fought a mysterious immune system collapse first begun after she returned from a mission trip to Mexico thirteen years ago, her condition was made worse by the development of Crohn’s Disease. Unable to work because of the debilitating symptoms and now uninsurable because of a “preexisting condition,” Rickey used up all of her personal financial resources purchasing exorbitantly expensive medications and treatments. While family and friends had sought to help over the years, she died essentially destitute and homeless. It is a deeply troubling story.

Even more so, Rickey’s story represents a provocative sense of irony. In the midst of raucous “tea party” demonstrations where fringe forces parade absurd signs portraying the “current occupant of the white house” as a reincarnation of Hitler, where confused marchers spout interchangeable slogans saying that our nation is on the verge of socialism, or is it communism, or is it fascism. (Isn’t it all the same?), where we read blog posts that mistakenly argue that libertarianism and capitalism are identical, the vitriolic public discussions tempt us all to despair.

Our faith leaders rightly encourage alternative approaches to dialogue, yet they are maligned for making such calls

Beth Rickey grew up in a time when one could tell the difference between the vision of honest conservatism and the rhetoric of ultra right wing pundits. No more today – all one has to do is listen to Glenn Beck or Lou Dobbs.

Some know Rickey’s history and about her moment of fame. Rickey was a staunch Republican activist from the state of Louisiana. She served on the party’s central state committee. She voted for Goldwater and worked in Ronald Reagan’s campaigns. She strongly supported the civil rights movement and from reports of her family, she was proud to be the niece of former baseball commissioner, Branch Rickey, who opened the door for Jackie Robinson to play in the major leagues.

Rickey knew what real racism looked like and she understood real fascism, for in the late 80s and the early 90s when David Duke ran for the governor of the state, she almost single-handedly led the opposition to his candidacy. While Duke suggested that he had put his association with the KKK behind himself, that he was not anti-Semitic, she did the research to back up the truth of Duke’s prejudices, his real commitments to Nazi principles and his deep racism.

In time, others followed her lead and eventually Duke was defeated.

In honor of Beth Rickey’s committed life and final struggle, perhaps it might be appropriate to seek the truth beyond the cynical partisan bickering we now experience and find a solution to the disastrous consequences of our broken systems. It might make a difference in as many as 45,000 lives.

Links for further information:

Quin Hillyer’s obituary in The Washington Times is touching, and highly recommended.

Kenneth Stern writes in Forward, the Jewish Daily

3 Responses to “In Memory of Beth Rickey”

  1. Quin Hillyer said

    I thank you for the link and the nice compliments about my column on Beth Rickey.(Beth, not Debbie.) Beth deserves all the praise she can get, and I applaud you for the sentiment evident in your little essay. I write, though, to correct one misimpression: Beth was NOT lacking health insurance. All through those terrible 13 years, her insurance company stuck with her. She had a high-deductible plan, but one that never failed to pay for any charges over the deductible. She died destitute in terms of liquid assets, but she did retain one oil lease that provided several hundred dollars monthly in income. Perhaps she could have sold that for one-time cash, but then she would have lost the income. Regardless, she used that oil income to pay her premiums each month. The reason she was destitute was not lack of health coverage, but because of an inability to hold down a job because of her illnesses. She also resisted taking public assistance, out of pride. So please don’t blame the insurance system; blame outrageously unfair luck (plus the stubborn pride). Beth was a true heroine; but she wasn’t a victim of bad policies.

  2. lorna said

    I get so discouraged over the fighting that goes on as to whether the number is this number or that number, or strange justifications as to why it’s OK to not care about some uninsured segment of society (like the idea that was going around that most uninsured are that way because they choose to spend their money on things other than health insurance, so it’s their fault they’re not insured). Other countries have figured out a variety of different ways to make sure all have basic health care needs met. It’s time for us to do the same.

    We need to remember that behind each of those numbers, is a person – someone’s family, someone’s friend, a person of value the same as us, if for no other reason than because they were also created by God.

  3. John Montgomery said


    Thanks for your clarification. I have no idea where “debbie” came from – was rushed to get it out and my mind went off track.

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