In November of 2015, Christopher Briggs and his wife received the news that no parent ever wants to be given. Their three-year-old daughter Colette had been diagnosed with leukemia. At that moment, the Catholic-Christian family began fighting a war on two fronts; one against the notorious disease of cancer, the other against the new and “improved” health insurance system created under the Affordable Care Act.
Now, more than five years later, Christopher finds himself cast in the role of critic, patient-advocate, and reformer of a system that was supposed to be in support of his daily life, not a preoccupation of it. Working with the likes of John Goodman and Michael Cannon he devotes much of his time trying to inform fellow Americans of both the intended and unintended consequences of the Affordable Care Act. He wrote a passionate and intelligent piece published on the New York Post in October of 2020 highlighting his experience.
Christopher recently sat down with Human Events News to share his family’s story, and to let people know that the hour is late in terms of being able to reform or exit the central planning health insurance model commonly known as Obamacare.
When asked how it was that he came to show such courage after the WWII incident involving PT 109, John F. Kennedy is said to have responded, “somebody sunk my ship.” The tragic onset of his child’s illness has likewise thrust Christopher Briggs into the unrequited role of hero in the battle for free market health care.
Christopher Briggs never thought that health insurance was going to play a central role in his personal and professional life. After having received his graduate degree from The Catholic University of America he entered the professional workforce to utilize his skills in fundraising and communication. By the time 2004 rolled around, he decided to exit the world of the W2 employee and start his own consulting practice where he could use his considerable and diverse skill set to become a sort of “hired gun” in the field of fundraising and communications.
“My American dream was to own my own business and to provide a quality living for my family and me,” Briggs said. He now refers to Obamacare as the “dream wrecker.”
“One thing I knew as a devout Roman Catholic who had five children and likely more on the way was that having quality health insurance was a priority,’ Briggs says. “At that time, there were so many options from which to choose I actually had to have two brokers help me sort through and understand all the various options.” Ultimately, he found the right plan for his family with affordable premiums, quality coverage, and access to the service providers they needed and wanted.
The nightmare begins
All went well until the rollout of Obamacare in 2014. Initially, Briggs saw his monthly premiums rise from $800 to $1,600, an experience shared by many Americans at that time with individual plans. To a small business owner, the premium increase was devastating. “Many people don’t realize that small businesses don’t run with large cash reserves,” Briggs said. “It wasn’t just the increase in the premiums. With changes in deductibles and copayment requirements, we found ourselves ultimately not really getting any insurance reimbursements until October or November.”
Briggs says he knew that the problem was coming as far back as during the debate over Obamacare in 2009. “When they said, ‘you can keep your doctor’ I turned to my wife and said ‘that’s impossible.’ You can’t take a relatively free market, eliminate the actuarial science that prices its service, turn it into a medical payment system, and not have shortages.” At the time Obamacare went into effect, the Briggs’ had Anthem as their health insurer. Sure enough, as Briggs had predicted within a couple of weeks of the new law’s implementation, the family received a letter letting them know that their current policy was no longer adequate. They lost that coverage and their doctors along with it.
Then came the devastating diagnosis of their daughter Colette’s leukemia in 2015. With that news, the Briggs family found themselves suddenly thrust into the world of almost daily health care “customers”. This is where they discovered the dirty little secret about Obamacare that nobody really talks about; the capriciousness of the health insurers and the incredible power they possess in making decisions as to what they will and will not cover.
“Under the system, if you are in an individual plan you are forced to make decisions in November or December as to what plan you want to select. That choice lasts for the whole upcoming year and with only a few exceptions, your child getting cancer not being one of them, you cannot make a new selection.” The Briggs family would find themselves over the upcoming years making choices in December for plans that would change their coverages by April of the following year.”
“Most people don’t realize that when you have a child with cancer, much of the treatment takes place at the home,” Briggs says. “My wife would have to wear protective clothing to administer some of the drugs to our daughter because of their high toxicity. Other treatments need to be performed at a clinic with the use of a stint, some others involve fully-anesthetized spinal procedures inside a hospital.”
Briggs says that the commercials you see for children’s cancer centers, like a St. Jude’s, don’t even begin to show the horrors and misery of the process. “No parent ever thinks that they are going to be ‘that parent’,” Briggs states. “I had to carry my daughter up and down the stairs on my back just like something out of Dickens’ Christmas Carol. All I can say is to enjoy every moment you have with your kids.”
The Briggs family’s series of unfortunate events
During the past seven years, here is just some of what the Briggs family has been forced to endure. They have:
- Been forced to change carriers because of changes taking place mid-year in what the carriers would allow. These changes could only take place at year end meaning they were left to cover huge gaps in payment coverage during the year.
- Had insurers drop coverage for treatment for their daughter in area hospitals but retain coverage for treatment in clinics. They have also had insurers make the same sort of coverage change in reverse. Remember that Colette needs to have treatment in both types of facilities.
- Seen their premiums increase from roughly $800 per month to over $3,000 per month. At the same time, they had both copayments and deductibles increase so that what was once $15,000 or so per year in medical costs became over $50,000.
- Been forced to borrow money from family and friends in order to pay for their daughter’s care.
- Had Christopher’s life dream of building his own company destroyed by the medical cost burden.
- Had a CSR for one insurance agency recommend they commit insurance fraud by opening a P.O. box in another zip code so that they could qualify for different coverage (they didn’t take that advice).
- Been forced to accept the subsidies available in the insurance market in order to make ends meet, something that given the Briggs family’s own values regarding personal responsibility and the importance of free markets was very personally challenging.
Regarding the subsidies, Briggs shares the story of the first crisis they encountered during Obamacare when in mid-2017, newly elected president Donald Trump went on Twitter to question the fairness of the insurance market subsidies that were unfairly being forced to be covered by otherwise healthy Americans. That simple tweet created an immediate market response.
“In less than 24 hours insurance companies were announcing that in 2018 they would be out of the market. Now I have had coverage continue through wars, the collapse of 2008, and other real events,” Briggs notes. “In what kind of a system can a President effectively sneeze and have 500 thousand people lose their health care?” Briggs brought this to the attention of the Washington Post and other news outlets, and also petitioned the office of U.S. Senator Mark Warner. With intervention and public pressure, the situation slightly improved.
“I’m a communications professional. I have the capability and the contacts to bring things to people’s attention. Not everyone can do that, nor should they have to.”
In mid-2020 after having made yet another change in insurance carriers, a return to Anthem, Briggs once again received an alarming notice, this time that his daughter’s clinic treatments would no longer be covered. Back to Senator Warner’s office he went where the Senator again intervened causing Anthem to change their policy and cover the clinic visits, but only through April of 2021.
Finally, in 2021, the Briggs family is now able to have coverage through a family group policy. The reason? In part because of his well-publicized plight, in 2018 the Virginia Governor signed a law requiring insurance carriers to offer group plans to LLC’s with only one member. Many Virginians who could not get reliable coverage, now are able to through this government created loophole, made necessary by a government created system. Like Kennedy and his PT 109 incident, Briggs has become a sort of reluctant hero.
The market didn’t create this problem and the market is running out of time to correct it
Briggs, an unapologetic supporter of free markets, laments what the government has done to the system. “I did a lot of work in post-Soviet Russia. We would hear stories about people standing in line for a day just to buy expensive spoiled sausage. The problem wasn’t that the sausage was spoiled. It was that there just wasn’t enough sausage being produced. In a free market, high prices are a signal for other competitors to enter the space. In a command economy, like our current health insurance system, high prices are simply a sign of scarcity.”
He points out another element of a command economy, while at the same time pointing out why the United States is so badly designed to manage such a system. “Along the way there was a moment when because of government action I suddenly had two choices for health insurance instead of just one (remember that when Briggs launched his business in 2004 there were so many options, he needed help to sort them). Only in a Soviet style system can you feel grateful to the state for giving you a single alternative. Briggs then adds that this kind of command economy works especially poorly in America. “Our founders designed a system that is supposed to work as inefficiently as possible in order to prevent it from doing too much. It was not intended to plan and oversee day to day economic activity.” Health care spending in the U.S. currently accounts for roughly 18% of our GDP.
In his role today as the Public Affairs Counsel at the Independent Institute, and in his own personal time, Briggs has been working with experts like Michael Cannon of the Cato Institute and John Goodman, also of the Independent Institute and the Goodman Institute. Goodman, who is the “father” of medical spending accounts, has a new book out titled New Way to Care: Social Protections That Put Families First.
Of Goodman, Briggs says, “John is pragmatic. He believes that we are not going to get the government out of health care. His solutions to the problem center around a sort of medical voucher system where the insurers would be forced to chase the patient to get them in, not chase them out as the current system encourages.”
Michael Cannon is a bit more insistent on his belief that the government needs to get out of the health care business. Cannon also points out a critical problem that he contends was part of the design of the system right from the beginning.
“Michael warns that for people like my daughter, people who get sick under a medical payment system like Obamacare instead of under an actuarially based insurance system, they are now permanently uninsurable should we ever return to the free market.” Briggs further explains “this means that if we ever do repeal Obamacare, we will need some sort of Medicare/Medicaid system for people like Colette or a permanent subsidy. The longer we have Obamacare, and the more people develop pre-existing conditions, the more likely it is that we will end up with a single payer system. That is what the architects had in mind all along.”
Of that single payer alternative, Briggs asks, “Do you want the same federal government that didn’t get your Christmas cards delivered last year to be delivering your health care? The system failed at delivering coverage to my three-year-old daughter. If anyone should be able to get help it should be her. They are incapable of getting this right.”
The inescapable conclusion one takes from Briggs’ story is that people are going to die unnecessarily because of an impersonal, bureaucratic system that lacks all of the market forces, incentives and competitive pressures, present within a free enterprise framework.
Through it all, he has maintained his faith
Today, Colette is enjoying remission from the leukemia that nearly took her life back in 2015. “We were so lucky. The only reason we discovered her illness is because Lyme Disease made its way into our family that year after a summer vacation. With Colette getting increasingly weak, we decided to have her tested. She was negative for Lyme, but in the process the Leukemia was discovered. We are the only family you will meet who is thankful for their kids getting Lyme Disease!”
A devout Catholic with nine children, Briggs said that this ordeal has not shaken his faith in God. “I know the argument that goes if there really was a God, He wouldn’t make children suffer. But then you are almost saying that the child would wish they had never been born. If you ask Colette if she would rather have lived and known the love of her parents and siblings, even while suffering, versus never having had a chance to live, I can assure you that she would choose life.”
Christopher Briggs never intended to live a hero’s journey, nor did he intend to have his family’s very personal and difficult challenges become open to the public for review and commentary. Regardless of what he wished for, in 2014 Obamacare nearly sunk his ship. He has chosen to rise to the occasion and engage in both a private struggle and public struggle to restore patient choice and free market efficiency back into the world of health care.
For that, this reporter, a father of three and grandfather of one, owes him a debt of gratitude.