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One woman’s battle

Jo Godfrey and her fight for health care reform

Posted: October 10, 2009 8:47 p.m.
Updated: October 11, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Cancer survivor Jo Godfrey discusses her years-long fight for health care reform.

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"I told God if he spared my life, I will spend the rest of my life trying to get this fixed," Jo Godfrey says.

And for 14 years, the 58-year-old Stevenson Ranch woman has worked tirelessly for health care reform, lobbying legislators, battling insurance companies and facing off against lawmakers - including Congressman Howard "Buck" McKeon.

But as President Barack Obama stepped up his bid Saturday for bipartisan support of his key domestic policy issue, Godfrey has registered her opposition to "Obamacare."

"I did support the public option, but not anymore," she said. "It's not enough when the politicians are influenced by the health care companies."

"We need national health care for everyone."

Life-changing experience
In Godfrey's Santa Clarita Valley home is a stack of nearly 20 boxes stuffed with correspondence with CIGNA Healthcare and her efforts to lobby the state Legislature for health care reform in California.

She says her own bout with lung cancer was successful only because a health care worker secretly arranged for her to pick up ostensibly lost medical records, allowing her to seek a second opinion.

To this and other claims, CIGNA issued the following statement:

"We are unable to discuss the details of Ms. Godfrey's case without her permission.

"However, what we can safely say is that when Ms. Godfrey was enrolled with CIGNA more than a decade ago, she received all of the benefits to which she was entitled under her benefit plan," according to the e-mail from Chris Curran, CIGNA spokesman. "There was no denial of coverage."

Whatever the catalyst, Godfrey became a whirlwind of health-care reform advocacy following her illness.

Lobbying the state
Once a week for nearly three years, she drove from her Southern California home to Sacramento to seek changes in state law.
"I would lobby from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and drive all the way back home," she said.

In a series of well-publicized battles in Sacramento, she accused state agencies of refusing to take legal action against health care companies.

She worked with former California Sen. Pete Knight to draft a health care reform bill, but she said Knight refused to carry the bill to the floor of the state Senate.

In total, 126 health care bills were authored during the time Jo Godfrey lobbied California. None passed.

But she was undismayed.

"So many things had gotten better between 1995 and 2000," she said, including a reduction in denials of coverage.

But in 2007, she was galvanized anew by the death of Glendale resident Nataline Sarkisyan. The last-minute approval of a liver transplant for the ailing bone marrow transplant recipient failed to save her life, and the case became a national cause for health care reform.

"I thought: Had I not stopped fighting so hard, she might be alive," Godfrey said.

"It seems like things are getting worse than they were when I was fighting this in 1996," she said.

Patients united
In September Godfrey traveled to Seattle, where she joined Service Employees International Union members who marched on CIGNA headquarters in Seattle and demanded a meeting with CIGNA's top executives.

"They wouldn't let us inside," she said.

Buildings aren't the only place where health care companies hide, Godfrey said.

The health care companies use federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act law, which limits the amount of money awarded in a suit against a health insurance company, to hide from expensive legal actions, she said.

"They can only be sued for the cost of the amount of coverage they denied," she said. "They've put a price on a human life."

Her passion has led her to establish United Patients of America, a nonprofit organization aimed at extending health care for all and taking on health-care corporations.

"I put $4,000 of my own money into this. I run it by myself," she said.

Battling on the local front
Godfrey was one of the outspoken people who attended McKeon's town hall meeting on health care reform on Sept. 26. She called for criminal prosecution of health care executives for what she dubbed intentional killing of Americans.

Godfrey's outburst was not her first encounter with McKeon, R-Santa Clarita.

Among the papers in her boxes of correspondence is a letter sent by McKeon to the California Department of Corporations in 1996.

In it, the congressman asked for an investigation into HMOs.

"Unfortunately, if Mrs. Godfrey's experience is any indication of how customers' medical needs are being treated by HMOs, we must reexamine the manage(d) care system," he wrote in the letter.

Latter-day insurance
Godfrey continues her battle but has long since parted ways with CIGNA.

Her current insurance is through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.

"There are no gatekeepers standing between me and my doctor," she said.

Godfrey said her fight is not over and she wants help.

"I want to build a movement," she said. "I'll fight till it's fixed or I die."

"I'm not interested in money. I'm interested in justice."

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