The moment a man told Bernie Sanders he was going to take his own life. Picture: CNN
The moment a man told Bernie Sanders he was going to take his own life. Picture: CNN

‘I can’t do it’ How private medical debt is killing Americans

US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was in the middle of a routine campaign appearance on Friday, speaking to voters about his health policies, when he heard the heartbreaking story of a man on the brink.

John, a military veteran, told Mr Sanders he was suffering from Huntington's disease, already $US139,000 ($A202,000) in debt and drowning in health care costs that kept piling up.

"I'm a navy veteran. I served 20 years. I saved lives," he said.

"I have Huntington's disease. I'm in stage four. I can barely take care of myself, and I do not have the strength to fight these people. And every time I get on the phone with them, they p*ss me off, and I can't deal with them.

"I was supposed to be given free health care for life, for being a veteran for 20 years."

John said he had been kicked off the Tricare health system, a Defence Department program which is supposed to look after veterans.

"Somehow after the fact, they claimed that my Tricare - that I had chosen to end it. Which I didn't," he said.

"Now they're saying that I didn't re-sign or do something."

"So how are you going to pay off -" Mr Sanders started to say.

"I can't. I can't. I'm going to kill myself," John said.

"Hold it. John, stop it. You're not going to kill yourself. Stop it," Mr Sanders told him.

"I can't deal with it. I have Huntington's disease. You know how hard it is? You know, you probably don't, do you? I can't drive. I can barely take of myself," John replied.

"All right, let's chat later at the end of the meeting, OK?" said Mr Sanders, before turning to the rest of the crowd.

"I wish that I could say that what John just described is unique, and that he is the only person in America who undergoes that. But it's not. All right, so John, we'll talk about it after the meeting and see what we can do about it."

Mr Sanders did follow through on his word, taking John aside after the event and speaking to him privately.

"What I wanted to make sure is that I got the correct information, because what I did not want to happen is just him talking about his story but not being able to follow up with him," he told CNN afterwards.

"He told me he doesn't answer his phone very much because there are bill collectors calling him up every day.

"Here is somebody who put his life on the line to defend his country, a veteran, dealing with a terrible, terrible illness, and what was obviously very unsettling is when he used the word suicide. That was the most dramatic and painful moment.

"This should not be going on in America, not for a veteran, not for any person in this country, and it is beyond comprehension that under the current health care system, somewhere like half a million people go bankrupt every year because of medical bills.

"Clearly we are not doing what we should be doing to make sure that every veteran in this country gets all of the quality health care they need when they need it."

Mr Sanders' handling of the situation earned him plaudits on the network. Host Don Lemon and political analyst Mark McKinnon discussed it at some length.

"Super-emotional human moment out there that magnifies the issue," McKinnon said.

"Also gave Sanders an opportunity to show humanity, which he doesn't do very often. I mean, he's just this policy-driven guy, but he handled that the right way. 'I got you, let's do it quietly and alone.' He didn't try to take advantage of the moment for himself publicly on TV, and took it away quietly. Which is the right way. It was a great moment."

"This is real life, and death. Possibly death. It's a real life or death issue," Lemon added.

Bernie Sanders at the campaign stop in Nevada. Picture: The Reno-Gazette Journal/AP
Bernie Sanders at the campaign stop in Nevada. Picture: The Reno-Gazette Journal/AP

So far, health care has dominated the political debate between the Democratic presidential candidates, who are all vying to be chosen to take on Donald Trump next year.

Two of the leading candidates, Mr Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, are advocating "Medicare for all". Both want to abolish private health insurance.

The current leader in the polls, former vice president Joe Biden, doesn't want to go that far.

Mr Biden was at the centre of a controversial moment during Thursday's debate when one rival, Julian Castro, accused him of forgetting his own health policy.

"The difference between what I support and what you support, vice president Biden, is that you require them to opt in. And I would not require them to opt in. They would automatically be enrolled, they would not need to buy in," Mr Castro said.

"That's a big difference, because Barack Obama's vision was not to leave 10 million people uncovered. He wanted every single person in this country covered. My plan would do that, your plan would not."

Mr Castro appeared to be wrong. A couple of minutes earlier, Mr Biden had said that under his own healthcare plan, anyone who could not afford insurance would be "automatically enrolled in the Medicare-type option".

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Naturally then, Mr Biden took exception to Mr Castro's argument.

"They do not have to buy in. They do not have to buy in," he interjected.

But Mr Castro did not back down.

"You just said that. You just said that two minutes ago. You just said two minutes ago that they would have to buy in. Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago? Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago?" he said.

"I can't believe that you said just two minutes ago that they had to buy in, now you're saying they don't have to - you're forgetting that!

"I'm fulfilling the legacy of Barack Obama, and you're not."

"That'll be a surprise to him," Mr Biden quipped in response.

Mr Castro's attack seemed to backfire, but it was telling that he chose to go after Mr Biden on health care. There is no bigger issue in the campaign.

For people like John, there is no bigger issue full stop.

If you or someone you know is in need of crisis or suicide prevention support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit www.lifeline.org.au/gethelp

Mr Sanders addressing voters. Picture: The Reno-Gazette Journal/AP
Mr Sanders addressing voters. Picture: The Reno-Gazette Journal/AP


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