As the health care debate thundered away in Washington, Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah stirred up a social media squall the other day by suggesting that uninsured Americans should invest in their own health care “rather than getting that new iPhone that they just love.”
Here in Mr. Chaffetz’s solidly Republican district, one of those uninsured Americans watched the viral CNN interview on — what else? — her cellphone. Not a new iPhone, though, but a Samsung with a cracked screen, one that Shari Hunter and her husband, Anthony, bought with their tax refunds two years ago.
“An iPhone and insurance are not the same thing at all,” Ms. Hunter, 32, said. “If you need to be able to decide between an iPhone and health insurance, you need to look at: Why is that the choice?”
To Mr. Chaffetz’s supporters, his comments sounded like a tough-love defense of individual responsibility in the midst of a knockdown debate over the government’s role in providing health care to Americans. To his critics, they sounded like a callous and obtuse dismissal of the hard choices that struggling families face every day — and one that echoed earlier, racially noxious arguments over “welfare queens” and criticisms of programs that helped provide phone service to poor people.
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The Hunters have thought plenty about trying to cut out the $100 they spend on cellphone service every month. Yes, they said, it’s a lot, especially when they don’t have health insurance and they stretch the last dollars from their $1,800 monthly income to buy diapers and gasoline.
But the cellphone tethers the couple together when Mr. Hunter leaves for his nearly $13-an-hour job at a call center and Ms. Hunter stays home with their three children — 9, 4 and 3 years old — here in the Utah Valley. They chat on his 15-minute breaks. It pains Mr. Hunter to be away from the children, so Ms. Hunter texts him photos of them making a snowman or playing on the backyard swing set. He sends her inspirational quotes from elders in the Mormon Church, to which they are both devoted.
The Hunters said they voted for Mr. Chaffetz in November, but Mr. Hunter said his comment sounded like something a “well-off person” would say — not a parent receiving food stamps, whose children are covered by Medicaid and who usually has $86 left over after paying the month’s mortgage and other bills.
Here in the heavily Mormon cities that run along the snow-glazed Wasatch Range, several of Mr. Chaffetz’s uninsured constituents said that, of course, they would love to be rid of the cellphone bills that cost their families $30, $50, $100 every month. But they said the savings would hardly be enough to afford monthly health plans for their families.
And how would they get by without their phones?
“A cellphone is a lifeline,” said Myla Dutton, executive director of Community Action Provo, a food bank and social-service nonprofit.
Jose Valdivia, 61, said he wouldn’t be able to quickly look up the latest engine modifications when he was repairing sport-utility vehicles at the mechanic’s shop where he works. His wife said they wouldn’t be able to send photos to relatives in Mexico City.
The couple spoke as they waited for an appointment at a free health clinic run by volunteer nurses and doctors two nights a week in Provo. Not surprisingly, smartphones abounded in the waiting room. People texted about dinner, called relatives with updates, held their children’s attention with a game.
Without her phone, Joana Delacruz, 45, said, she wouldn’t be able to see job postings from nursing employers, or check whether she should bring home some food for her 18-year-old son after finishing her 3-11 p.m. shifts managing a McDonald’s in Provo.
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