By David Gutman
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Jamie Rockefeller was 2 weeks old and he was sick. It was 1969, and he had something called pyloric stenosis, a narrowing of the stomach that prevents food from being digested. He needed surgery.
“I will never forget Sharon’s and my terror,” Jamie’s father, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., recalled in September. “We didn’t know about an operation. He’s 2 weeks old — a 2-week-old baby — but we could do the operation because we could afford to do that, so we did that. And now he’s 6 foot 4 and weighs about 250 pounds.”
Of course Rockefeller, scion of one of America’s richest and most powerful families, could pay for the surgery. But that helpless fear — that a parent feels for a sick child — stuck with him, and he realized how much that fear is compounded if health care is unavailable or unaffordable.
“Your infant child is sick, she’s got a cough, her fever is spiking. You’re not sure what to do, and there’s a feeling of helplessness that comes with that,” Rockefeller said. “What many of us can never understand is what it’s like to feel that sense of dread without the comfort of affordable health care.”
Rockefeller, who with his wife, Sharon, has four children and six grandkids, has spent much of his career trying to alleviate that sense of dread — to bring medical care to people who otherwise wouldn’t have it.
In 1992, he got the Coal Act passed, forcing coal companies to pay the health-care costs of retired miners.
In 1997, he was one of two lead sponsors of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which today gives health coverage to 25,000 low-income West Virginia kids.
In 2009, he led the reauthorization of CHIP, helping to secure the program’s funding through 2015.
In November of this year, a clinic to treat chronic lung disease, partially funded by Jay and Sharon Rockefeller, opened in Cabin Creek. Two similar clinics are to open in Boone and Fayette counties.
On Wednesday, more than 80,000 of West Virginia’s poorest residents will get health insurance, many for the first time, because of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s decision to expand Medicaid in the state, an expansion that Rockefeller relentlessly advocated.
On Dec. 12, Rockefeller spoke to the Senate Subcommittee on Health Care, which he chairs, to push for the same consumer protections in Medicaid that are required of private insurers.
“Medicare and Medicaid, and the people who rely on these vital programs, are in many ways my life’s work. They are the reason for my public service,” Rockefeller, who will retire in one year, told the subcommittee. “I am here today to continue work I’ve done for nearly 50 years: protecting the most vulnerable among us all. It is something I take very, very seriously,”
From allowing sick kids to get to a doctor, to bringing an auto plant and 1,200 jobs to Putnam County, to stopping phone companies from billing for bogus charges, to bringing Internet access to West Virginia’s most rural schools and libraries, Rockefeller’s career has been spent looking out for the most vulnerable West Virginians.
Someone who was born with much has spent 50 years fighting for those with little.
For a lifetime of advocating for the health and economic interests of the most vulnerable, least-noticed West Virginians — and for his half-century of conscientious public service — the Sunday Gazette-Mail has chosen U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller as the 2013 West Virginian of the Year…