NIEMA ROSS’ final post on Facebook was a photo of an Albuterol inhaler, with a simple caption whose desperation only became apparent a day later:
“ISO: do you have a box of these laying around unused? LET ME TAKE THEM OFF YOUR HANDS PLEASE”
I don’t know if Niema ever got an inhaler, but if she did it was too late.
Niema Ross passed away over the weekend, leaving behind three children and hundreds of stunned friends and family in Savannah.
Niema was not only one of Savannah’s most widely beloved and universally admired community members, her passing is also tragically emblematic of our nation’s long-running inability to adequately provide healthcare in a fair, equitable, and just manner.
Her tragedy is both a deeply personal one, and a national tragedy of limited access to health care that brings disgrace and shame to the country.
Personally, my interactions with Niema were mostly confined to sharing the front row with her at many a Cusses concert at the Jinx.
Posting up at the foot of Angel Bond’s vocal monitor, Niema knew every word of every Cusses song and sang along. Her contagious charisma and warm personality could galvanize an entire crowd in a single moment, and often did.
I’m sure many of you who knew her much better than I did have many more similar stories to tell.
A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to briefly speak to Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams about the roll-out of her health care plan.
Candidly, I never found a good moment to go with that story. Until now, writing about my interview with Abrams felt more like writing a campaign ad than a work of journalism, so I begged off.
Niema Ross’ passing has made crystal clear the desperate need for an overhaul of how health care is delivered in Georgia.
Indeed, that was a near-universal sentiment among all those who mourned her death: What a crime to live in a country of such great prosperity and opportunity, yet a country where a working single mother cannot afford basic health care such as a simple inhaler for asthma.
I have no idea if Stacey Abrams has all the answers, but I do know — we all know — the current system isn’t working as it should.
The centerpiece of Abrams’ plan is a simple one: Expand Medicaid within the current bounds of the Affordable Care Act.
Georgia is one of many states which have so far opted not to expand Medicaid, its Republican leadership mostly citing reasons of fiscal conservatism and the supposed spectre of single-payer healthcare.
However, as Abrams points out: “Mike Pence successfully expanded Medicaid when he was Governor of Indiana.”
Supporters say expanding Medicaid wouldn’t only result in better healthcare outcomes, but that it might add as much as $8 million a day into the state economy.
“Expanding Medicaid would result in higher reimbursement rates for doctors,” Abrams explains. “That’s one reason we’re losing so many doctors right now. Expanding Medicaid access would increase rates across the board.”
Abrams also says to accommodate the necessary field of practitioners, “we also have to increase grad school medical slots.”
Georgia currently has the nation’s third-highest rate of uninsured citizens. It’s not just a number – these are real people we’re talking about, real people like Niema Ross.
Expanding access isn’t enough when rates skyrocket. So Abrams also says she supports using what’s called a 1332 State Innovation Waiver, currently allowed by the ACA, to create a Georgia Premium Stability Program.
In Abrams’ words, this would “build on the ACA and keep more money in the pockets of Georgians by reducing vulnerability to loss of health insurance due to a rise in premiums.”
She says she will also push for an enhanced Earned Income Credit for working families.
“Closing the gap in income closes the gap in outcomes,” she says.
While Abrams has been characterized by political opponents as serving a narrow slice of Georgia’s citizens, her apparently sincere devotion to the cause of improving rural health care belies that notion.
Indeed, a core part of her health care plan involves leveraging the Medicaid expansion to boost health care investment and outcomes far outside her metro Atlanta base, in rural areas which — to put it bluntly — are unlikely to vote for her, or for any Democrat.
“This problem is largely in Republican districts,” she says flatly. “Rural hospitals are shutting down or dramatically cutting back in capability.”
The maternal mortality rate in Georgia, Abrams says, “is exacerbated by lack of health care.”
She says 79 Georgia counties have no resident practicing OB-GYN, and 54 counties have no pediatrician at all.
That’s basically the level of a developing country (my description, not Abrams’).
At the time I talked to Abrams, her opponent Brian Kemp’s health care plan was literally only seven words: “improve access to healthcare” and “lower healthcare costs.”
Probably in response to Abrams’ attacks and the detailed specificity of her own plan, Kemp has since expanded his health care plan on the website.
And behold, it looks a lot like Abrams’ plan at first glance: He talks about improving rural healthcare and stabilizing premiums.
But Kemp still opposes expanding Medicaid, saying “Stacey Abrams’ extreme agenda builds upon the systemic failures of Obamacare by moving us towards a government run, single payer healthcare system that will cost billions, triple state income taxes, worsen the doctor shortage, dramatically reduce access to quality care, and ultimately bankrupt our state.”
I’m not here to tell people how to vote. That’s a personal decision.
I have no doubt that both Abrams and Kemp are sincere in wanting better health care outcomes for Georgia’s citizens.
It just seems objectively true that we have been trying it Kemp’s way for quite awhile and it’s not working out so well — not for people like Niema Ross, and maybe not for you either.
Until such time that these kinds of things are no longer necessary, here's a link to a GoFundMe page to help out Ross' family with expenses after this preventable tragedy.