Mitch McConnell Refused to Meet With Group That Funded His Polio Recovery
Without the March of Dimes, he might have been among the people with disabilities arrested for protesting the Senate health bill.
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Say a charity group helps you recover from polio. Decades later, representatives from that same organization ask to have a word about your bill being drafted in secret that would reportedly gut healthcare for millions, including people with disabilities, while giving massive tax cuts to the wealthy. You might at least hear them out. Some people might even say that you owe them one.
Southern gentleman and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, though, apparently disagrees. As Death and Taxes recently pointed out, McConnell contracted polio as a two-year-old. As he described years later, on the 50th anniversary of the polio vaccine being introduced, polio is a virus that comes on like the flu, but can paralyze people for life. In McConnell's case, after he'd gotten over the initial illness, he had residual effects in his left quadriceps muscle.
McConnell was lucky enough that his family lived within driving distance of Warm Springs, Georgia, home to the first (and for many years, the only) hospital devoted solely to treating people with polio. In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had himself been paralyzed by polio, created a charity called the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP) to support the hospital and aid polio patients around the country. Comedian and radio personality Eddie Cantor called for Americans to send their spare change to President Roosevelt, in "a march of dimes to reach all the way to the White House."
Despite a slow start, the plan succeeded beyond all expectations: By the end of the first month, it had raised $268,000. That money helped fund the NFIP hospital at Warm Springs and the foundation also sponsored polio research, including that of Jonas Salk, who would go on to develop the first polio vaccine. It was licensed for use on April 12, 1955, following massive crowdsourcing success; one writer declared that "more Americans had participated in the funding, development, and testing of the polio vaccine than had participated in the nomination and election of the president." The World Health Organization says, "As a result of the global effort to eradicate the disease, more than 16 million people have been saved from paralysis."
McConnell, born in 1942, was one of those millions. At Warm Springs, his mother learned how to give her young son physical therapy and McConnell recovered with no ill effects, save for some slight difficulty going down stairs; he takes the elevator instead. "My first memory in life, Mr. President, was stopping at a shoe store in LaGrange, Georgia," he recalled in 2005. "We had left Warm Springs for the last time, and the physical therapist there had told my mother: 'Your son can walk now. We think he is going to have a normal childhood and a normal life.' We stopped at a shoe store in LaGrange, George, and bought a pair of saddle oxfords...So I am particularly moved by the fact that we can stand here today and say that polio is essentially eradicated from the face of the earth."
His first memory is of being recovered thanks to Warm Springs and the NFIP—the foundation that later changed its name to the March of Dimes. On the 50th anniversary of the polio vaccine, he spoke on the floor of the Senate about his experience and how it shaped him. He's able to walk today thanks to the physical therapists who helped his mother when he was just two years old.
So when the March of Dimes asked to meet with the Senate Majority Leader about the healthcare plan he and his colleagues were then crafting behind closed doors, he might have thought about how he'd avoided becoming paralyzed. He might have thought about how, without the March of Dimes, he might have been among the people with disabilities arrested for protesting the Senate health bill's reported cuts to Medicaid.
But whatever Mitch McConnell, able-bodied Southern gentleman, thought, he refused to meet with them and 15 other patient groups, the March of Dimes among them. Mitch McConnell, according to his staff, was just too darn busy.
When the Senate bill was finally released, the public and lawmakers learned at the same time that it would make drastic cuts to Medicaid, the federal program that insures low-income people as well as 30 percent of adults and 60 percent of kids with disabilities.