Kathy Olsen is one of those people you can never imagine dying because she was always so full of life. Kathy did die suddenly this month at the age of 59, from a heart attack, following a rough dose of chemotherapy.
Kathy was a relentless advocate for greater patient safety and protections from the medical insurance complex following a family tragedy. Her struggles changed the rights we all possess in America if an HMO or health insurance company tries to deny us treatment or care. We owe her a great debt.
A determined and passionate fighter for justice, Kathy took on the cause of patient safety after her son Steven, then two years old, suffered a head injury. In the emergency room, he was repeatedly denied an $800 CAT scan by an HMO doctor that, experts and a jury later found, would have prevented his life of blindness and brain damage. Kathy has spent her life since making sure Steven is happy and leading campaign after campaign for greater protections for patients.
A jury’s multi-million dollar verdict to compensate Steven for his lifetime of blindness was reduced by a California legislative cap on damages to $250,000. Kathy fought to change that law for other families and prevent its spread to other states and the nation.
We rode the bus together for HMO patients’ rights in the mid-1990s with the mighty California Nurses Association so no other patient would face the same penny-wise pound-foolish cost-cutting that Steven did. Kathy helped enact tough rules on HMOs in California and elsewhere. She went to Sacramento, Washington, and statehouses all across America to tell Steven’s story and fight against restrictions on injured patients. She testified for greater legal and regulatory accountability for dangerous doctors and cost-cutting insurance companies.
A decade ago Kathy’s kindness and conviction single-handedly convinced a swing-vote United States senator not to join Republicans in the Bush era to enact national legal limits on injured patients like the one that victimized her family. After Kathy told Steven’s story, this senator refused to join then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist in his efforts to put a national damages cap of $250,000 on medical negligence victims. It was a vote that seemed inevitable until Kathy spoke to her.
Steven Olsen is 25 years old now, and one of the sweetest and happiest disabled individuals you will ever meet thanks to Kathy’s love and care. Kathy’s husband Scott is determined to carry on her fight and, of course, her love and caring for Steven.
The truth is Kathy isn’t going anywhere because she and her family will never be far from our thoughts at our nonprofit group Consumer Watchdog. There’s still so much to do.
What the medical insurance complex should long ago have learned from Kathy’s advocacy and journey is that resisting accountability for medical wrongdoing and wrongdoers is a disservice to the medical profession as well as society.
The reason health insurance companies and drug companies have become so powerful in medicine today is that too often the medical establishment has fought patient advocates like Kathy Olsen rather than taking on the corporate forces that truly threaten the medical profession.
When doctors capitulate to the cost-cutting of health insurance companies, or the profiteering of drug companies, patients are harmed and the medical profession itself is diminished. Good doctors today who think most about their patients are too often penalized by insurance companies and left of out of their networks. Drug companies have turned too many doctors into little more than narcotic dispensaries. And the costs of health care skyrocket to deal with the injuries resulting from substandard care, opioid addiction, and other vices of the medical-insurance complex that plague us all.
Families like the Olsens are left to deal with the consequences when medical care and the legal system fail them. At 25, Steven Olsen has the body of a man, but he needs round-the-clock help that his family must provide. His cerebral palsy keeps him from walking without assistance and, happy as he is, his blindness and diminished brain capacity will keep him from ever living on his own.
Steven’s case was a tragedy. Kathy’s life helped prevent more. But we still have a long way to go to make sure that no other families have to endure what the Olsens have. Kathy Olsen’s legacy will live on. If only the medical establishment had the resolve to heed the power of Kathy’s life the work of protecting patients would be an easier road.
Jamie Court is the president of the nonprofit nonpartisan group Consumer Watchdog.
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