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'Obamacare' symbol: Court ruling is 'right direction'

By John Couwels, CNN
updated 2:57 PM EDT, Thu June 28, 2012
M. Turner snapped this self-portrait that went viral in the debate over President Obama's Affordable Health Care Act.
M. Turner snapped this self-portrait that went viral in the debate over President Obama's Affordable Health Care Act.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • M. Turner's "I am Obamacare" photo went viral across the political blogosphere
  • Supreme Court ruling helps Americans who need insurance for pre-existing health conditions
  • A part-time employee with no benefits, she couldn't afford surgery for tumors in her uterus
  • Insurers denied her for pre-existing condition; government said she made too much for aid

Tampa, Florida (CNN) -- Sitting on a corner of her brown sofa in a modest rental apartment, Miss M. Turner creates hand-made jewelry -- not quite the image you might expect from a public face in the nation's bitter fight over health care reform.

What the health care ruling means to you

In the months leading up to Thursday's Supreme Court ruling about the White House-backed Heath Care Affordability Act, Turner's photo went viral across the political blogosphere, accompanied by the provocative headline "I am Obamacare."

The high court ruled that the law's individual mandate -- the provision requiring all Americans to have health insurance -- will stand. Turner called the ruling "historic," "amazing" and "the right direction."

Woman inspired Obama's health care plan
Supporters of the health care legislation celebrate after the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in a 5-4 ruling Thursday, June 28. Supporters of the health care legislation celebrate after the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in a 5-4 ruling Thursday, June 28.
Health care and the high court
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Photos: Health care and the high court Photos: Health care and the high court

"I have to admit I was worried because ... I thought they were going to strike down part of it, especially the individual mandate," Turner said.

Read the ruling (pdf).

The ruling is good news for millions of Americans like Turner who have a pre-existing health condition. Between 50 million and 129 million of them are younger than 65, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Last fall, Turner, 35, who is neither a politician nor a political operative, got noticed by grabbing a simple piece of paper and a blue Sharpie, and without even planning what to say, wrote, "I discovered my uterus was full of tumors. I couldn't pay for surgery and because it was now a 'pre-existing condition' insurance companies could (and did!) turn me down for coverage."

Turner says she was laid off for health-related absences and now makes a living with her hand-made jewelry business.
Turner says she was laid off for health-related absences and now makes a living with her hand-made jewelry business.

The letter went on to praise the President Obama-supported pre-existing insurance plan for paying for most of her surgery.

She set the timer on her small, red point-and-shoot camera and snapped a picture of herself holding the note and posted the photo on her blog www.giveneyestosee.com -- a site she's operated since 2001.

Her photo has "been all over the Web; that's crazy to me," said Turner, who prefers to be identified by her first initial only: M.

It has been shared, praised, criticized, discussed, debated, dissected and dismissed on a wide swath of political forums both well-known and not-so-well-known, including DailyKos, MoveOn.org, Democratic Underground, Progressive Libertarianism, Mother Jones, The Health Care Blog and The Voices In Frank's Head.

The praise has convinced her that she's had a hand in turning the very meaning of the word Obamacare on its ear. First used as a weapon by Obama opponents, the word has more recently been embraced by supporters of the president's plan.

GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney said Thursday, "Obamacare was bad policy yesterday, and it's bad policy today. Obamacare was bad law yesterday, and it's bad law today."

The ruling has prompted the Republican National Committee to launch a site called PeopleVObamacare.com.

For Turner, her personal campaign has made her a bit of a target.

"Her hand written letter says nothing of her having the freedom to get the service and pay out of pocket, at possibly an outrageous cost, but get the life-saving service none-the-less," writes Susan Cassidy, at Progressive Libertarianism. "Nor does it mention the fact that she could have asked for a self-pay discount and then worked out a payment schedule that she could handle. No, because of the culture we have grown up in, it is her RIGHT to receive this service and it is clearly someone else's responsibility to pay for it."

In 2014, the law will prevent insurance companies from discriminating or denying coverage because of a pre-existing condition, says CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta. For now, the law offers the federal Pre-existing Condition Insurance Plan, which allowed Turner to have her surgery.

Edmund Haislmaier, a health policy expert at the Heritage Foundation think tank, said the new regulations threaten to make the nation's health care problems worse and destabilize the market.

"Obamacare's radical changes to health insurance regulation were never necessary for expanding coverage for already sick patients" because of the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) -- which limits how employer health care plans can exclude benefits based on pre-existing conditions.

Turner understands going without insurance was a gamble, but like many Americans she struggles to pay her $237 monthly premium for the pre-existing coverage.

"It's not that I didn't want health insurance this whole time," she says. "It's just a lot of money, and it's hard to come up with the money every month."

She laughs when she remembers sitting down last October to post her Obamacare photo online from her bedroom computer amid her collection of stuffed animals and small Disney figurines.

Timeline of the health care law

"I never thought a simple picture on my humble little blog would be all over the Web, go viral," said Turner, who shares her home with her fiance and two cats.

"(It) would shut down my website three times a month because of the traffic. It was insane," Turner laughed. "One person said 'you're a hero' -- which made me blush because I didn't think I was a hero."

As a part-time national customer service representative working for the Nielson Co. in Tampa, Florida, Turner had no benefits.

"I was looking at being faced with tens of thousands of surgeries and no way to pay for it," she said. "I cried -- woo I cried."

Health companies turned her down for her pre-existing condition and government assistance denied her coverage for making too much money.

Breaking down the court's decision

A friend told her about the Pre-existing Condition Insurance Plan, insurance coverage under the Health Care Affordability Act, and Turner was accepted.

To raise the $5,000 co-pay she needed for surgery, plus the $13,000 emergency room visit, Turner's friends and family staged a large garage sale. She also asked online supporters for donations.

Another fundraising avenue for Turner was her hobby -- creating hand-made jewelry like her silver and gem-stone tree of life pendant.

Today her hobby has become her primary source of income. Nielson laid Turner off after she took a long absence from work to have her surgery.

Turner, a Democrat and self-described liberal, says she is grateful to Obama for his health care reform legislation because 51 million people like her are denied basic health care because they don't have health insurance.

Although she was excited when her story was featured on Obama's re-election website, she's more excited by Thursday's announcement.

"We had to drag people forward for women┬╣s rights, civil rights. Equality in this country, discrimination in this country, these are issues people fought against -- and health care is just the latest," she said. "I totally get that about the country: bad or good, you have to drag people kicking and screaming into the future."

Obama: Supreme Court ruling on health care a victory for all Americans

Opinion: Are voters ready to move on?

Photos: Who is John Roberts?

Overheard on CNN.com: Health care law a 'necessary evil'

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