A Novice Health Care Reform Blogger Explains Why She Writes

Published on
April 26, 2012

Holly Gonyea Dolan survived a stroke at age 27 and, while the recovery was difficult, navigating her insurance and the costs of her care was devastating. She writes on her website:

As a public school teacher, I had health insurance. I soon discovered that in the current system, that was no consolation. In the months that followed my attack I battled the demons that lurked in the shadows of insurance claims that were denied and battled the collection agencies that relentlessly stalked me for payment. Payments could not be made from a salary that was being garnished and credit cards that were being overdrawn to pay medical bills. In fear, I watched my financial security sift like sand between my fingers as I desperately tried to grasp tighter. As I laid in steadfast stillness in the confining chambers of an MRI machine, my thoughts should have been focused on my health situation. Instead, my mind was muddled with the worry and anxiety of whether or not the bill for this most-likely expensive procedure would be covered. The voice of the customer service agent from my HMO resonated through my head, "We'll pay to take the MRI, we just won't pay to READ the MRI," she said in response to a previous procedure.

So when health care reform became a huge topic of debate, Dolan, now 38, was disheartened by what she heard. She had spent ten years as a high school health teacher in Lebanon County, central Pennsylvania, and five more years in her current position as an adjunct professor in the sociology department of Lebanon Valley College. What she saw playing out was a "lack of understanding of the uninsured and plight of low-income people."

Writing to her senator wasn't enough, she explains. So she started Health on the Horizon, a blog about how the Affordable Care Act (ACA) might affect people in Pennsylvania. She didn't have much publishing experience but had a deep interest in health writing and telling personal stories on a topic she cares about.

"This whole online writing thing is totally new to me, and I really jumped into it blindly," Dolan says. "Literally, last summer, I bought Blogging for Dummies."

Dolan started collecting stories for about six weeks before starting the blog on September 1. Her first post was her own story, excerpted above. The blog, which will run one post per week through the end of August, is hosted on Google's Blogger platform and has a basic design. Dolan plans her posts well ahead of time and runs short series to focus on particular people or topics. She finds individuals to profile most by word-of-mouth, but also by partnering with health organizations.

For example, Dolan went to a county fair with members of the Pennsylvania Health Access Network.

"People were flooding to talk about health care," she says.

Holly Dolan at Clarion FairShe asked visitors to the Network's table to fill out a form about their experiences with heath care insurance. After six hours, she went home with eight stories that became a series called "Summer at the County Fair." The series about Stacey's story came from Dolan's visit to Occupy Philly protests in October and focus on economic inequality. She is now working on a Medicare series.

Dolan is not a journalist; she does not insist that her subjects use their full names and does not fact-check their stories against medical or insurance records. For her, the most important aspect of the blog is to link these stories with data and explanations of new laws. While she did not set out to become an advocate, she does support health care reform and sees the ACA as the best the United States can do right now.

That advocacy perspective permeates the blog, enough for the Pennsylvania Health Access Network to name Dolan 2012 Activist of the Year.

"I've been criticized as a cheerleader and I understand that," Dolan says. She has a few posts in the works about people whose stories give her room to critique the Affordable Care Act.

It has not always been easy to keep the project going. In the beginning, Dolan says, she got a lot of readers, but after a while, she started to feel like she was writing to herself. Though people slowly joined the site's Facebook page -- it currently has 83 likes -- she did not get many responses to her work for a while.

"I know I've hit my points where I say, 'Why am I doing this?'" Dolan says. "There are weeks when I've spent 12 hours writing one piece that 11 people read."

But when she meets someone who tells her their health care story, she is motivated to go on. She digs into data and learns something new, and sees her own knowledge expand even when the website isn't getting much traffic.

When the Supreme Court began its hearings on the individual mandate portion of health care reform, Dolan saw interest pick up. She saw a traffic spike – on April 2, she got 524 pageviews in three hours -- and was called for speaking engagements with local community groups. Her local newspaper, the Lebanon Daily News, features Health on the Horizon in its community blogs section.

"Where it's going to go after a year, I don't know," Dolan says. "Every week I feel like something new comes out of this."

More to read on blogging:

Year of the Blogger: Why Carey Goldberg loves her new medium
Don't be afraid of HIPAA, say nurse bloggers
Origin Stories: Journalists Anne Polta and Scott Hensley explain how they became bloggers
Journalists learn more about blogging, social media tools at AHCJ
Is blogging good for your career?