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Originally published March 8, 2010 at 10:00 PM | Page modified March 9, 2010 at 12:45 PM

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Boy who lost mom takes health-care story to D.C.

Marcelas Owens may be the only health-care lobbyist around here who needs an excused absence from school. The fifth-grader at Seattle's Orca K-8 school has been campaigning for health-care changes since, when he was 7, his mother died after she fell ill and lost her job and insurance coverage.

Seattle Times Washington Bureau

KCTS 9: Marcelas Owens talks about losing his mother to pulmonary hypertension (Jan. 2009)

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WASHINGTON — Marcelas Owens may be the only health-care lobbyist around here who needs an excused absence from school.

The fifth-grader at Seattle's Orca K-8 school has been campaigning for changes in the health-care system since his mother died after she fell ill and lost her job and insurance coverage. He was 7 at the time.

Owens has told his story to Sen. Patty Murray, who, in turn, has retold it on the Senate floor as well as to President Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden.

On Tuesday, Marcelas is taking part in a protest rally in Washington, D.C., against insurance companies organized by Health Care for America Now, a nationwide lobbying campaign. He also is planning to buttonhole lawmakers, speak at a hearing and wage a sit-in as the yearlong congressional debate on health care approaches what may be a final showdown.

Health Care for America Now paid to take the boy and his grandmother to D.C.

The chipmunk-cheeked Marcelas didn't come to argue the merits of the public option (indeed, he couldn't define it). His plea is far simpler: "I want health care to be for everybody."

He came to his advocacy out of profound loss.

His mother, Tifanny Owens, was working as an assistant manager at Jack in the Box when she began suffering from mysterious vomiting and diarrhea in September 2006. By October that year, she had missed so much work that she lost her job — and her insurance.

Two months later, Owens sought emergency care at Swedish Medical Center's Central Area campus, where a doctor diagnosed her with pulmonary hypertension, a serious type of high blood pressure involving the arteries in the lungs. In January, she again went to Swedish's emergency room and was hospitalized for eight days.

Owens' mother, Gina Owens, said her daughter, who didn't qualify for Medicaid, avoided regular visits to a doctor despite frequently throwing up blood. In June 2007, Tifanny Owens was hospitalized yet again, this time at University of Washington Medical Center. After a week of unconsciousness, she died at age 27, leaving Marcelas and his two younger sisters. Gina Owens has custody of the three children.

Marcelas said he has many good memories of his mother "even though I knew her for only seven years."

Even before her daughter fell ill, Gina Owens had been active for years with Washington Community Action Network, the state's largest consumer-advocacy group. Her death made the family's cause personal.

Marcelas has told his story in interviews and at rallies. He met Murray last May at such an event in Seattle.

Gina Owens said losing a mother at such a young age made her grandson both more tenderhearted and stronger. When his grandmother tears up during an interview, Marcelas circles a table to give her reassuring pats on the shoulder.

Marcelas, who turns 11 on Wednesday, also has had to contend with public attacks. Once, for instance, a radio commentator suggested that his mother's pulmonary hypertension, a lung disorder, was a health problem of her own making.

"We don't even know what was making her health bad," said Marcelas, who fielded questions Monday with a soft, patient voice in between lolling on the floor of a hotel lobby, flipping a novelty pen.

As for his mother's premature death, he said, "I don't think it's anyone's fault. But they could have done more" for her.

Under health-care proposals before Congress, the federal government would help offset the cost of insurance for the working poor like Tifanny Owens or even pay for it outright, depending on income.

Murray, a former preschool teacher, said Marcelas' story of loss was an indelible reminder of the important goal that had been obscured by months of political wrangling.

"This comes from his heart. You can't forget it," Murray said.

Murray said Owens' descent from being healthy and employed to being sick and uninsured should be sobering for anyone who believes that proposed health-care legislation will benefit only "others."

"This isn't about somebody else," Murray said. "This can happen to you."

Kyung Song: 202-662-7455 or ksong@seattletimes.com

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