Steel Magnolias worked hard, collected petitions and wrote letter after letter, but without an elected representative to sponsor legislation, we had little hope of changing Alabama's inequitable policy.
Fite was not the first legislator to respond to letters we mailed to Montgomery, but he was the only legislator to take a stand concerning the cruelty to uninsured Alabama women because of the little-known gap in coverage in the Medicaid Breast and Cervical Cancer Treatment Act.
I well remember the call I received on March 17, 2008, from Markeshia Ricks, then-political correspondent for The Star. In October 2007, I had mailed Ricks copies of the information collected since 2005 about the Alabama Medicaid policy that excluded uninsured Alabama women because of where they were diagnosed. I told her to keep the information because it would be useful in the future.
On that March day in 2008, I was getting out of my car in the Regional Medical Center outpatient parking deck when my cell phone rang. Ricks said, "I reopened the packet of documents you sent to me. In a few days, The Anniston Star will publish an article about a bill sponsored by Rep. Lea Fite, HB147."
Even though HB147 never came up for a vote in the 2008 session, Fite refused to quit fighting to pass legislation that would provide coverage for poor, uninsured Alabama women. He pre-filed HB147 for the 2009 general session.
Who is my neighbor? Fite was convinced of his responsibility to his constituents. When we first spoke, he said, "It was rough when my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, and we had good insurance. I can't imagine being told there is no money to pay for treatments, especially if it is because the diagnosis was made at the wrong clinic."
In Luke 10:30-37, Jesus answers the question, "Who is my neighbor?" We know the text as the parable of the Good Samaritan. A man lay bleeding, where thieves had left him. A priest and a Levite crossed the road to avoid the injured man, but a Samaritan bandaged his wounds and cared for him. Jesus asked the expert in the law, "Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him." Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."
In Ricks' article, Fite said, "This is just awful. When someone gets sick, you take them to the emergency room and by law they have to treat them. But a lady with breast or cervical cancer can't just go to the emergency room. There is nowhere for these ladies to turn."
In January 2009, Fite was again quoted in The Star, "It absolutely tears my heart out that we can't get this type legislation passed, but I'm going to keep trying."
For every woman who is enrolled in the Medicaid Breast and Cervical Cancer Treatment Program and was diagnosed by a physician without first going to the health department, Rep. Lea Fite is the Good Samaritan.
HB147 is not the full extent of the life and accomplishments of Lea Fite, but it is a legacy. In a card of thanks I sent to Fite, I concluded, "The joy is ours, the victory is for the poor uninsured women of Alabama." He was our friend and a neighbor to anyone needing his help.
We are grateful for the brief time we worked with Rep. Lea Fite, and we trust his sudden death will be a reminder to each of us that whatever we need to say to those we love, or whatever we can do to make our world a better place, we must do it now.
Lenora Johnson is executive director of Steel Magnolias Breast Cancer Support Group Inc. in Jacksonville.