Lowell Sun: OUT TO HEAL THE SYSTEM: Seizure scare re-enforces Eldridge’s drive for health-care reform

By Aviva Gat, Sun Correspondent
3/8/10

BOSTON — On the morning of Oct. 7, Jamie Eldridge received a crash course in the health-care system.

Eldridge, 36, suffered a one-minute seizure while sleeping in his Acton home. In that minute, the 6-foot-5-inch state senator fell out of bed and broke bones in his back, strained his spine and tore his shoulder from its socket.

“I don’t remember any of the above,” Eldridge wrote in his blog on Nov. 2.

Eldridge was rushed to Massachusetts General Hospital, where he had three surgeries in 10 days. He spent two weeks recuperating at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Center, where he had to learn to walk again.

He also learned some finer points about the health-care system.

While in the hospital, Eldridge met other patients who were being discharged before they had fully recovered because their insurance would not pay for further care.

“That was something really upsetting,” said Eldridge. “I just think it’s a really broken system that health-insurance companies are really doing their best to reduce their care at a time when people need it most, when people get sick.”

In April 2006, Massachusetts adopted a law that provides insurance or subsidized insurance for those unable to afford it on their own.

According to the Commonwealth Health Insurance Connector Authority, more that 400,000 people have been insured by the state since the bill was passed.

Eldridge acknowledged that the reform has helped many people, but he said it “did not fix the system.”

As he goes through physical therapy for his shoulder, Eldridge is also working on legislation to introduce in the next session that “would move Massachusetts to a truly universal health-care system.”

His bill would eliminate for-profit health-insurance providers. Instead, everyone would be insured by the state. Individuals would be able to upgrade their insurance for a fee.

“About 31 percent of health-care costs are administrative,” said Eldridge. “This would eliminate all that waste.”

Eldridge’s plan also includes a transition process that would provide job training to people who lost their jobs working for health-insurance companies.

The October incident was not the first time Eldridge has had a seizure.

He experienced two previous episodes in 1999 and 2003. Although he will likely take anti-seizure medication for the rest of his life, diagnosis has been elusive. Doctors do not believe Eldridge has epilepsy. The only cause they could come up with is stress.

“I think, as much as I can in this kind of job, I have to reduce stress,” said Eldridge. “Although I don’t know if that will happen.”

Eldridge spent about a month recovering at his home, where he lives with his girlfriend of four years, Yanina Gonzales. He said he missed the Statehouse and was happy to return to work in December, with even more zeal for important issues like health-care reform.

Eldridge considers himself a progressive Democrat, valuing independence in the Legislature.

“I’m proud that I stand up for what I believe,” he said. “I think that sometimes there are legislators who say, ‘I could never be for that because some people in my district don’t support that.’ I really do believe you should make decisions that you believe is the right thing to do.”

Eldridge became interested in politics in high school. His basketball coach at Acton-Boxboro Regional High School was a legislative aide for the then-state Rep. Bob Durand, the year the representative ran for state Senate.

Eldridge became the Acton town coordinator for Durand, who won by fewer than 200 of the 60,000 votes cast in the election.

Eldridge said volunteering on Durand’s campaign showed him the impact one individual can make.

“I think that’s why I really fell into politics,” he said. “I knew right then I wanted to run one day myself.”

While at Boston College Law School, Eldridge managed a successful re-election campaign for then-state Rep. Pam Resor.

Resor said she was impressed with the law student’s work ethic.

“You could see he was determined,” said Resor, who took over Durand’s Senate seat in 1999. “It was evident he would be successful.”

Eldridge saw the 2001 redistricting, which created a new congressional district in Acton, as a rare opportunity to run for office. He left his job at Merrimack Valley Legal Services in Lowell, a nonprofit organization that provides free legal services to the poor and the elderly, to campaign full time. He spent three terms in the House, from 2003 to 2008.

When Resor retired in 2008, she endorsed Rep. Eldridge as her successor. Eldridge said he is doing his best to fill Resor’s shoes as the “environmental conscience of the Legislature.”

As an environmental advocate, Eldridge has worked to pass legislation to create a Water Infrastructure Finance Commission to oversee the repair of aging water infrastructure.

In this session he has filed an “E-waste” bill to promote the recycling of electronics and co-sponsored the Safer Alternatives bill, which would reduce exposure to toxic chemicals found in household products.

Eldridge is proud of what he has done for the commonwealth. He said the great thing about being a state legislator is having a small enough district to really get to know the people he represents.

But he has clearly set his sights higher. In 2007, Eldridge ran for Congress when then-U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan resigned to become chancellor of UMass Lowell. He came in third in the primary and endorsed winner Niki Tsongas.

“I think it’s no secret that I’m someone that’s looking for opportunities to help more people,” said Eldridge. “I definitely see myself in public service for the rest of my life.”

How can the government help more people now? By repairing the health-care system, he argues.

“I can think of few other instances of government assistance that would have as dramatic an impact on people’s lives as a right to health care, and that would make every community richer,” Eldridge wrote in his blog on Nov. 2.

Eldridge was hoping for national reform, but said due to Sen. Scott Brown’s recent victory, any national health-care reform will be “significantly watered down.”

“Now it’s up to each individual state,” he said. “We can do more. That’s what I’m fighting for.”

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