From the Sea to Capitol Hill - An Interview with MS Activist Donnie Horner

At 26, Donald “Donnie” Horner, a 2008 graduate of the United States Naval Academy, had trouble shaking off his “sea legs.” Donnie was a naval officer commissioned as Surface Warfare Officer (aka SWO) aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, a ship stationed out of San Diego, California. As Donnie describes it, he went to school to learn to be the “boat driver.” Donnie majored in political science, earning the Dr. Charles H. Coates Award for Excellence in Military Sociology in 2008.
Donnie has a record of being a standout. He played not one, but two sports, hockey and baseball, while at the Academy. A 4-year-letter winner and president of the Navy Hockey Team, Donnie led the team in 4-straight winning seasons. He was awarded the 2008 US Naval Academy Athletic Association Male Club Sport Athlete of the Year Award.
In his first two years stationed in San Diego, Donnie spent about 300 days at sea. His job required him to spend many hours on his feet. “When I was out to sea, I began to develop tingling in my legs in July and August 2009. Because I had spent so much time out to sea, I said to myself, ‘Man, this just must be sea legs or something like that.’ When we got back into port, I noticed my symptoms started to get worse. I went to a couple of my buddies and they said, ‘You really need to go see a doctor.’ So I did.”
Donnie described his legs as feeling weak and heavy, with the sensation of falling asleep. He would try to hit his legs in an attempt to wake them up. “My mind was going, but my legs weren’t able. And it hurt, the constant pressure of standing on the needles.”  Coincidentally, Donnie had never experienced these symptoms until after he received required vaccinations – anthrax, tuberculosis, tetanus – in May/June 2009. “I’m not kidding. I received a dozen vaccinations the summer I was diagnosed.”
Donnie was transferred from San Diego to the Naval Air Station Hospital in Jacksonville, Florida, for immediate evaluation and treatment. He received the official MS diagnosis on September 11, 2009, a determination which was confirmed by a second opinion at the Mayo Clinic. Life for the 26-year-old Donnie was ‘pretty darn challenging’ at that time.
“You go from being very confident and thinking that you have a great career in front of you to ‘damn, I don’t know what I’m going to do.’ And really I didn’t. All I was focused on was taking my Avonex once a week, getting the cortisone or steroid concoction they would give me, and trying to stop using the cane. And I did that for 8 months.”
In April 2010, Donnie retired with a partial disability and now receives a monthly stipend from the Department of Defense for which he is eternally grateful.
“[After retirement] I kicked around a couple of months before I started graduate school. I graduated with my MBA from Jacksonville University in August 2011 and worked as a special assistant for Mayor Alvin Brown. I was his public communications officer. Then I left the Mayor’s office [in November 2011] to start my company, MainOcean Port Services in Jacksonville, [a consolidated port services company serving vessel agents, owners, and operators in the ports of northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia].” 
Donnie receives primary medical care from the Veterans Administration (VA) with access to neurologists at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville. “I’m lucky that I was a veteran.“ Donnie raves about the quality of care he receives from the VA and is thankful that he doesn’t have to worry about obtaining health insurance with a pre-existing condition. He is proud that MainOcean Port Services provides health insurance to its other full-time employees. 
“I’m very well aware of the fact that I’m one of the lucky ones. There are a lot of people who have this horrible disease, and they don’t have access to [insurance] which is why I’m so passionate about the National MS society. [The Society] opens a lot of doors, especially when you are beating down congressmen’s doors in DC while at the Public Policy Conference. It makes a difference.”
On Wednesday, hundreds of meetings are scheduled with elected officials throughout the day as MS activists take their message directly to Capitol Hill. A first-time speaker and second-time attendee at the Public Policy Conference, Donnie is excited to share his story at the Kick-Off Breakfast before he visits Florida legislators.
Policy Update:
The Affordable Care Act calls for the creation of state “health exchanges” - basically a new marketplace to help link Americans to insurance coverage. Individuals and small businesses will be able to purchase health insurance plans offered on an exchange.  Dave Chandra, Senior Policy Analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, explains that health exchanges are especially important for persons who earn above 133% Federal Poverty Level (earning too much to qualify for Medicaid) and who are still uninsured.  Persons earning below 400% FPL may be eligible to receive subsidies, based on a sliding scale, to help pay insurance premiums.
States are responsible for establishing health exchanges and may work together to create regional exchanges, however, “No state is jumping at this option,” says Chandra. The federal government has turned over the responsibility of establishing essential health benefits to the states. Health insurance plans that wish to compete within an exchange must include these essential benefits as baseline coverage. Plans may offer greater benefits but not lesser. To help determine what the essential benefits may include, each state may look to the top existing plans (based on enrollment) currently available in their state as models for future plans.
Important features of health exchanges to keep in mind:
  • You will be able to keep your doctor.
  • Insurance plans will not be able to deny coverage to people because of pre-existing or chronic conditions.
  • All insurance plans must have basic benefits that will cover things like doctor visits, hospitalizations, preventive care, and prescriptions.
Most importantly, health exchanges will help people living with MS, or other chronic condition, obtain health insurance.
Follow the National MS Society federal public policy efforts on Twitter @MSActivist.
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