MANCHESTER., New Hampshire (Reuters) - A family who says its daughter died because a health insurance company refused to pay for an operation campaigned with Democrat John Edwards on Sunday, reinforcing his election message that corporate greed is hurting Americans.
The parents and brother of 17-year-old Nataline Sarkisyan, who died of leukemia on December 20, recounted their story to an audience of around 500 and said Edwards struck a chord with their grief.
The event, two days before a nominating vote in New Hampshire where Edwards trails rivals Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, dramatized his message that the U.S. middle class is being threatened by corporate greed.
Edwards finished a distant second to Obama in Iowa last week, the first contest in the state-by-state process to pick candidates for the November election, and his campaign could lose momentum without a strong showing on Tuesday.
“This (the cause of Sarkisyan and others) is what drives me every single day. This is what this fight is all about. ... I am in it with heart and soul and with every fiber of my being,” Edwards said to applause.
Edwards, who is proposing a $120 billion plan that would give health insurance to all, says many drug and insurance companies are responsible for creating a situation in which millions of Americans either lack health insurance or have cover inadequate for their needs.
Sarkisyan contracted leukemia at 14 and was treated with chemotherapy under her father’s health insurance plan. Last summer the leukemia returned and she received a bone marrow transplant from her older brother Bedig.
Complications arose, her liver ceased to function and doctors at UCLA hospital recommended a transplant.
“But CIGNA HealthCare ruled that the treatment was ‘experimental’ because of the leukemia and not covered by her policy,” said a statement from the Edwards campaign. The family would have had to pay $75,000 for an operation, it said.
Cigna eventually agreed to pay but Nataline died the same day. In a statement after her death, CIGNA said her father’s insurance plan had not covered the transplant but that it had decided to make an exception.
“My heart is a hole. I didn’t know any insurance company ... (could be so) careless,” mother Hilda Sarkisyan said of her daughter who died aged.
“I haven’t cried. I can’t cry. It’s very difficult ... I want to thank Sen. John Edwards and I wish you the best and I hope you become our president,” she said.
Apparently drawing a distinction with Obama, former North Carolina senator Edwards said he was the candidate who would fight hardest to change the system.
“What kind of fighter do you need on your side when you’re family is faced with this kind of crisis,” Edwards said.
“Do you want somebody who has the right ideas and philosophy, or do you want somebody who has the right ideas and philosophy and the fight to bring about change because that’s what this is about.”
Editing by Stuart Grudgings