by Daniel Lowry
The room was packed. Stephanie Oghia had gotten there early, and had a seat on the front row. She had never attended a town hall with a lawmaker, but she had a question she wanted to ask the man who represented her in Washington.
Congressman Andy Barr stood in front of the crowd of about 100 people inside the Montgomery County Courthouse Annex on a mild, late-February morning. Barr wore light brown cowboy boots, khaki pants and a blue blazer with a white shirt and tie, and he was there to answer questions from constituents. The event was called “Coffee with your Congressman.”
Before taking questions, Barr spoke for about 20 minutes.
“He mentioned two or three different times some awards he was given in Congress for different things,” says Stephanie. “It was very much like he was bragging.”
After his remarks, Barr began taking questions. Stephanie raised her hand.
“I was not there to protest,” says Stephanie. She intentionally avoided wearing anything that would make her look like a protester. She wore a royal blue dress with a black sweater. She hoped her Congressman would listen to her, and maybe help her with a major concern.
Stephanie, who is in her thirties, is one of hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians who got health insurance under the Affordable Care Act in 2014. Her problems began in 2015.
“I started feeling fatigued and having a lot of weird pains that didn’t make sense,” she says. Her joints and her muscles hurt. She would get crippling headaches that nothing would help.
Normally energetic and active, she had zero energy. At a check-up, she told her doctor about her troubles. “I’ve gone from being always on the go to where I come home from work and I go straight to bed. I stay in bed until I have to get up the next day. The only thing I do on the weekends is go from my bed to my couch and then back to bed. It’s not like me at all.”
Doctors did tests and Stephanie learned the bad news. She had Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune disease that gradually destroys the thyroid gland. She also had fibromyalgia, a central nervous system disorder which has no cure. It leads to widespread musculoskeletal pain accompanied by fatigue, sleep, memory problems and other issues.
“I would have pain so bad in my fingers that I sometimes could not hold the steering wheel.” Her nerves were so sensitive some days that simply to touch her face sent shockwaves of pain through her body.
Doctors were also concerned she may have Lupus, which is an imitator disease and often shares symptoms with Hashimoto’s and fibromyalgia. Lupus is a chronic disease where the immune system attacks healthy tissues and organs.
She began getting medicine that helped treat her Hashimoto’s and fibromyalgia, and doctors are monitoring her for Lupus. She sees her doctors frequently, and gets medication that is able to give some relief when those massive headaches come back, so they don’t sideline her for six days. She pays about $200 a month out of her pocket for her insurance. Her medicine is hundreds of dollars per month, but thankfully her insurance covers it.
“Without the Affordable Care Act, it would be a choice of paying for rent and car insurance and other expenses — or paying for my medicine. Because of the ACA, I’m able to function like a normal human being.”
With constant talk from Republican lawmakers about repeal of the ACA, Stephanie has reason to be worried. She kept her hand raised to talk to Congressman Barr, but he kept ignoring her. Nevertheless, she persisted.
Toward the end of the session, people behind Stephanie, people she had never met before, started telling Barr to answer her question.
“It wasn’t just one person. It was several people who were trying to get him to acknowledge my presence,” she says. She was sitting on the front row, only a couple feet from Barr. There was no way he did not see her.
Stephanie is a true American. Born on the 4th of July, she’s the daughter of immigrants. Both her parents escaped hardship to come to the United States legally in their late teens or early twenties with their parents. At the time of her birth, her mother was in the process of becoming a US citizen, and had a green card.
Growing up, Stephanie’s mother taught her never to give up. She learned to appreciate the opportunities that exist in the United States. As a descendant from immigrants, she was thankful for the freedoms and protections of basic rights that exist here.
Then Andy Barr stopped taking questions from constituents. He was about to turn so he could begin talking to reporters. That’s when Stephanie Oghia spoke out. She couldn’t remain silent any longer.
“My hand has been up the entire time,” she told Barr. “You have seen me and ignored me. Why won’t you answer my question?”
Barr said nothing.
“He just looked at me, and was shocked that I had the courage to stand up to him,” she says.
Then Barr turned back around and spoke to the reporters.
“Angry” is the word Stephanie uses to describe how she felt.
“I wanted to ask him how, for someone my age, with the repeal and replacement of the ACA, how can someone like me expect to stay healthy, pay off debts, and become a homeowner when my medical costs without the ACA would be unaffordable.”
Stephanie says she will always be an advocate for the Affordable Care Act.
“I was raised by a strong woman,” she says. “My mom taught me to be strong and make my voice heard, and to stand up for what I believe.”
Stephanie Oghia will persist, and she will not forget. She will make her voice heard, and others will join her. Andy Barr is back up for election in 2018, and Stephanie will be waiting.