WASHINGTON ― Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) told his constituents on Friday that “nobody dies because they don’t have access to health care,” in what may have been one of the least true political statements of all time.
Georgeanne Koehler has devoted dozens of hours to telling anyone who would listen about how her brother died. Billy Koehler’s death, from cardiac arrest after his implanted defibrillator ran out of batteries, is a testament to how someone can perish from lack of access to health care.
Over the past several years Koehler repeatedly traveled to Washington to tell lawmakers about her brother. She even testified before the House Education and Workforce Committee in 2012, explaining that he had arrhythmia and lost his health insurance when he got laid off in 2003.
“He called every health insurance company in Pittsburgh in hopes of buying a private plan, but the answer was always the same: ‘denied due to his pre-existing condition,’” Koehler said in her written testimony.
Billy Koehler eventually got a job delivering pizzas, but the position didn’t offer health insurance. When his implanted defibrillator’s battery ran low, Koehler couldn’t afford the thousands of dollars a replacement would cost. He died on his way home from work in March 2009.
“He drove two blocks, came to a stop sign, put his car in park, and slumped into his steering wheel,” Georgeanne Koehler testified.
One study in the American Journal of Public Health estimated in 2009 that as many as 45,000 people died every year for want of health insurance.
When Labrador and other Republicans in the House of Representatives voted last week to repeal the Affordable Care Act, a law designed to make the insurance market more humane, Billy Koehler was there ― in portrait form. An artist named Theresa “Pussi Artist” BrownGold painted Billy Koehler as part of a project documenting the lives of people who’ve struggled with the vagaries of the health care system.
“I just think that people’s stories illustrate what’s really happening, as opposed to the rhetoric that we hear on these Sunday morning talk shows,” BrownGold said in an interview.
Labrador, for his part, said Saturday that he didn’t mean what he said. (You can see the full exchange here.)
“I was responding to a false notion that the Republican health care plan will cause people to die in the streets, which I completely reject,” Labrador said in a statement to the Washington Post. “In a lengthy exchange with a constituent, I explained to her that Obamacare has failed the vast majority of Americans. In the five-second clip that the media is focusing on, I was trying to explain that all hospitals are required by law to treat patients in need to emergency care regardless of their ability to pay and that the Republican plan does not change that.”
Koehler, 70, is retired and lives in Pittsburgh. She’s glad people remember her brother but wishes the health care debate could end.
“I don’t want to have to tell [the story] anymore,” she said. “I just want the stories to stop.”