In Sickness and in Health Insurance: 13 Books on the State of Health Care

Since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, the House of Representatives has voted to repeal it over sixty times. On March 8, House committees began debating repealing and replacing the ACA with new legislation that has been rejected by the American Medical Association, the AARP, and several associations of hospitals. As of March 9, the new plan had passed through two committees after only twenty-seven hours.

Republicans are not sure how much their replacement plan is going to cost. President Trump had promised voters that a new plan would be cheaper and provide more benefits than the ACA, although initial responses to the plan indicate that the President’s criteria had not been met. To those who were concerned that the new plan would not provide subsidies for health care insurance, Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) suggested that Americans should invest in their health insurance instead of a new iPhone. Speaker Paul Ryan has suggested that the new plan would get rid of mandated coverage, arguing that healthy people shouldn’t have to subsidize care for sick people, which raised questions about whether Paul Ryan understands how the concept of insurance works.

While a reading list that covers healthcare would take a lifetime to read, Signature has put together a short list that offers perspectives on the experience of getting sick and paying for getting sick.

  • The cover of the book The Brand New Catastrophe

    The Brand New Catastrophe

    Mike Scalise was a young man when disaster struck: a tumor was discovered on his pituitary gland and he underwent surgery to remove the tumor. Without hormones produced by the pituitary, Scalise’s body underwent some radical changes, which he writes about with both lyricism and laugh-out-loud wit. At one point, he reveals one of the greatest catastrophes that can befall young people: getting sick and not having health insurance. His accounts of trying to find a job that carries health insurance benefits should serve as a strong warning to any twenty-something who bemoans mandated coverage. No one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition, nor do they expect the out-of-control growth of cells where they ought not to be.


  • The cover of the book On Immunity

    On Immunity

    While some celebrities have muddied the discourse surrounding vaccination by citing discredited studies, Bliss investigated her own fears of vaccinating her child by conducting deep research. Bliss investigates the history of the distrust of vaccines, and also highlights how our language’s framing of the body’s interaction with disease using the terminology of “wars” attaches misnomers to processes that assume winners and losers. The result of her work is this book which the Guardian praised as “The book is itself an inoculation — it grafts and unites different traditions of the essay, and in doing so creates something stronger and more resilient.”

  • The cover of the book Quicksand


    What It Means to Be a Human Being

    Henning Mankell is better known to American audiences as the author of the “Wallander” series of detective novels, which are set in Sweden. A BBC-production of the series starred Kenneth Branagh and was shown on PBS. When Mankell was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2014, he began writing essays that both dealt with his illness and reflected on a remarkable life. He dedicates the book both to his wife, but also to Terentius Neo, the baker of Pompeii, and his wife, who were killed during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 C.E. It is reflective of Mankells’s prodigious range of interests which he displays in eloquent prose. “I have heard the blackbird. I have lived,” he writes, as he invites readers to contemplate questions of being, and happiness, and what our lives mean.

  • The cover of the book The Cancer Journals

    The Cancer Journals

    Audre Lord’s intersectional feminism continues to inspire a quarter-century after her death. In 1980, she penned the story of her experience of breast cancer, and provided women with a manifesta of revolutionary courage when facing one of the most common of all cancers. Adrienne Rich called Lorde an Amazon warrior, a reference not only to Lorde’s fierceness, but to her membership in the sisterhood that Terry Tempest Williams called “the clan of one-breasted women.”

  • The cover of the book Stitches


    Small uses graphic memoir to tell the story of how his father “gave” him cancer. When Small was little, he had breathing difficulty. His father, a radiologist, treated him with bursts of radiation. At fourteen, Small developed cancer of the throat that resulted in one of his vocal cords being removed. Small explores how his father’s treatment “shut him up” because he had been a “difficult” child. Stitches was only the second graphic memoir to be a finalist for a National Book Award.

  • The cover of the book The Empathy Exams

    The Empathy Exams

    A collection of essays that offers new understandings of disease and pain by one of the finest American writers working today. The essays range from Jamison’s experience of being one of medical students’ practice patients to hanging out with those who suffer from modern-day “imaginary” illnesses. A project the New York Times reviewer described  as “cerebral, witty, multichambered essays tend to swing around to one topic in particular: what we mean when we say that we feel someone else’s pain.”

  • The cover of the book The Birth of the Pill

    The Birth of the Pill

    One of the biggest health concerns for women of reproductive age is managing reproduction; i.e., the spacing of pregnancies to promote optimal health for both mother and baby, or choosing not to procreate at all. Without access to contraception, and depending on her ovulation cycle, a woman has as much as a thirty percent chance of pregnancy during an act of unprotected intercourse. Pregnancy, childbirth, and its complications are all part of our huge medical system. And yet, birth control is still seen by some lawmakers as too “nitty-gritty” a detail to discuss publicly, or a “moral” choice, or as one that insurance should not have to cover, part of the history of the Pill that has been present since its inception.

  • The cover of the book The Emperor of All Maladies

    The Emperor of All Maladies

    Mukherjee’s history of cancer won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010. In her New York Times review, Janet Maslin admired the book’s project, but pointed out that it was an impossible task for one book to try to cover the history of one of humanity’s most feared diseases. But “emperor” in the title points to the complexity that a popular study of cancer is faced with: while to be a king is to be monarch over a single nation, emperor implies the multiple lands that make up an empire. In his book, Mukherjee is able to gesture to the fact that “cancer” itself is a misleading term that covers a range of conditions afflicting different parts of the body, and which does not always respond in the same way to the same treatment in different persons.

  • The cover of the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

    The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

    Henrietta Lacks was a black tobacco farmer who was treated in the “colored” ward at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. While she was there, cells were taken from her cervix, without her knowledge or consent, and those cells have established cell lines that have been used in the development of polio vaccines, in vitro fertilization and many other medical breakthroughs. Mrs. Lacks died of cervical cancer and her family never saw any compensation for her cells, even though billions of dollars have been made off the medical advances her cells made possible. Skloots’s book won over sixty book awards. In April, Oprah Winfrey will bring the story of Henrietta Lacks to HBO as a full-length film.

  • The cover of the book Medical Apartheid

    Medical Apartheid

    The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present

    While many Americans have become familiar with the horrendous Tuskegee experiments, in which black men were deliberately infected with syphilis so that researchers might observe the ways in which the disease destroyed the human body, they may not know that Tuskegee was just one of many such experiments. In some cases, black bodies were considered “more expendable” than those of whites. While Washington’s book is specifically about experimentation upon black bodies, the medical apartheid system continues today. Recent studies confirm that people of color receive lower levels of health care than their white peers.

  • The cover of the book America's Bitter Pill

    America's Bitter Pill

    Money, Politics, Backroom Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System

    Steven Brill’s 2014 book documents that America’s healthcare system is the most expensive in the world, and yet, despite that, the healthcare that many Americans receive is inferior to that of many industrialized nations. Brill was in the middle of researching and writing this book when he himself underwent emergency heart surgery, and the personal insights brought to him by his own medical crisis inform some of the book’s arguments. On its publication, the Los Angeles Times greeted Brill’s analysis with this rave review: “For its insights into our nation’s fiscal, psychological and corporeal health — and for our own long-term social well-being — it is a book that deserves to be read and discussed widely by anyone interested in the politics and policy of healthcare.”

  • The cover of the book An American Sickness

    An American Sickness

    How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back

    Rather than treating American healthcare as a monolithic system, Dr. Rosenthal, who authored the New York Times study, “Paying Till It Hurts,” (which shows that the average cost for a hip replacement is sixty-six iPhones) breaks down the system into its component parts. Examining the difference between emergency rooms (where a stitch may cost you $500) to insurance companies, research charities, doctors’ and nurses’ training, pharmaceutical companies and others who play their part in our healthcare system, Dr. Rosenthal offers a means for understanding and a way forward in changing our overpriced system.

  • The cover of the book The Healing of America

    The Healing of America

    A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care

    T.R. Reid is a correspondent for the Washington Post who is used to unpacking complicated issues for readers. In this book, lauded by the New York Times as a “seamless indictment of our own disastrous system,” Reid’s argument examines healthcare in ten other nations, comparing healthcare costs and quality of treatment to determine who is getting the “best” healthcare available. Readers may be surprised to learn that the United States is the only nation in the book where patients may have to spend hours arguing with insurance companies to secure the benefits promised by policies. And while the book is full of moral outrage, ultimately it offers a message of hope for how the American system can be fixed.