At task force or committee meetings there is sometimes a strategy guiding where you sit. If an important legislator is in the room, for example, people will try to sidle up next to him or her to influence the policymaker’s thinking. As stakeholders gathered at the North Carolina Institute of Medicine for a seemingly endless series of meetings on implementing the Affordable Care Act in our state I often moved my name marker around to sit next to Michael Keough.
Folks outside of the worlds of state government or health insurance may not recognize Michael’s name, but he was an important leader and manager for many years in North Carolina. Most recently he ran the state and federal high-risk pools (called Inclusive Health in our state) that were created to help people with pre-existing conditions access health insurance until full implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Before that Michael ran Senior Care, which helped low-income seniors access prescription drugs before the implementation of Medicare Part D.
The high-risk pools shut down in 2014 because the Affordable Care Act banned the use of pre-existing condition exclusions, and Michael worked with partner organizations to start a health insurance CO-OP in North Carolina. CO-OPs are consumer centered health insurance plans that are up and running in several states. Congress killed CO-OP startup funding before our state’s plan could get approved.
You should start seeing a pattern here: Michael Keough cared about helping people access health care. That was the focus of his career. And he knew that prescription drug assistance and high-risk pools were only stopgap measures. He didn’t think of them as permanent solutions to our health care crisis.
I didn’t only sit near Michael at meetings because he was enormously knowledgeable about insurance and health policy, or because he fought for average North Carolinians. I sat near him mostly because he had a great sense of humor and he didn’t mind me passing him sarcastic notes.
I’m referring to Michael in the past tense because a few weeks ago we lost him much, much too young. In losing him the health advocacy community in our state lost a friend. I hate that he didn’t get to see the Supreme Court ruling in King v. Burwell because he would have been elated to see that the protections afforded to people with pre-existing conditions will continue.
You can watch some NC Policy Watch interviews with Michael and get a sense of the great work he did. We are a better state because of it.