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Washington Sketch: In Mural, Widow Paints a Plea for Health-Care Reform

Regina Holliday's mural shows her late husband, Fred, on his deathbed. When symptoms of his cancer first appeared, the couple did not have health insurance.
Regina Holliday's mural shows her late husband, Fred, on his deathbed. When symptoms of his cancer first appeared, the couple did not have health insurance. (By Marcus Yam -- The Washington Post)
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By Dana Milbank
Thursday, August 6, 2009

Regina Holliday will always remember the day the Senate took up health-care reform seven weeks ago. It was the day her husband died.

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At home in the family's apartment on Connecticut Avenue NW, Fred Holliday succumbed to kidney cancer at age 39. He probably had had the disease for years, but with no health insurance, he couldn't afford the tests that might have explained the night sweats, fatigue and bloody urine. By the time he finally got a job that came with health coverage and got the tests he needed, it was too late: The cancer had spread and was inoperable.

These days you can usually find Regina Holliday in a parking lot between the BP station and the CVS near the Politics and Prose bookstore. She's painting a 20-foot-high mural, showing her husband on his deathbed, to draw attention to the failings of the health system.

Lawmakers hurrying home for their August vacations probably won't stop by to see Holliday on her ladder. But just as the 37-year-old widow will never forget June 17 -- the day the Senate health committee debate began and the day her husband's life ended -- members of Congress should keep another date in mind: Aug. 31. That's the day Holliday and her two boys, 3 and 10 years old, will lose their health coverage. Again.

Holliday, who worked in a toy store and now teaches art to preschoolers, took out her brushes a few minutes after 6 a.m. Tuesday. She pointed out the elements taking form on the gas station wall: a list of her husband's medications, a distracted doctor talking on his cellphone, another doctor tied in rope and standing in medical waste. Her husband, on a cot, holds a note he has written to his wife: "Go after them, Regina. Love, Fred."

"That's what he told me to do," she explained. "That's what I'm doing."

When she's not painting or caring for the boys, she's lately been attending health-care advocacy conferences. After one such conference, someone gave her name to the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). She found herself at the Capitol the next day, standing with Senate leaders at a news conference, where they used her story to make the case for their policy.

But the moment, a couple of weeks ago, brought more discouragement to Holliday. As she stood with the senators, they announced that they were giving up on their plan to pass the legislation before the summer break. "It was so frustrating," Holliday said. The surrender on the deadline "stole the story."

It was hardly her greatest frustration. Before he died, her husband, an assistant professor of film at American University, paid his health insurance premiums with Blue Cross Blue Shield through the end of this month. Holliday says she can barely cover her rent with the roughly $2,000 a month she gets from teaching art and from Social Security survivor benefits. She thinks the boys will qualify for coverage under a government program for children, but "for adults there's no option," because she earns too much for Medicaid.

Her best hope, she figures, is getting health insurance through the "public option" in the Democrats' legislation -- a government-run insurance program, opposed by Republicans and the insurance industry, for people who can't otherwise get coverage. For Holliday, an Oklahoma native, it's not an ideological thing. "There's a very small portion that needs the public option," she said. "I think I'm that tiny, small part."

On Tuesday morning, Holliday put down her brushes for a few moments to listen to a conference call with reporters held by the president of the industry lobby, Karen Ignagni of America's Health Insurance Plans, who continued her fight against the public option. It would, she said, "dismantle employer coverage, bankrupt local hospitals" and be a "financial catastrophe."

The White House in recent days has fought back against the insurance lobby for its opposition to a public option, and Ignagni accused the administration of trying to distract attention "from the sinking support for a government-run program."

She said that "our members strongly support reform," yet she also maintained that "85 percent of Americans are very satisfied with their health-care coverage." And she declined to criticize the people who are disrupting lawmakers' health-care meetings with loud protests and, in one case, by burning a member of Congress in effigy.

Holliday, sitting in a car parked near her mural, listened to much of the conference call with a puzzled grin. But Ignagni's message came through to her clearly: "She's trying to destroy the health-care bill." And the "public option," Holliday accurately observed, is the "wedge."

The young widow then offered some political analysis. "This is not going to get passed," she said, but "if they dropped the public option, there's a good chance this would go through." Perhaps, but wouldn't that mean that Holliday wouldn't get health insurance? The painter considered, then offered a generous reply. "If we had to give up the public option to get it passed, I'd say do it, even if it meant I didn't get coverage," she said. "We'll get it the next time."

Holliday left the car and returned to her brushes.


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