Shelley Madore has lived through the health care crisis. Even though she had health insurance, Madore was nearly bankrupted when her kids became ill. And the financial and emotional strains of the ordeal helped lead to the end of her marriage, too.

But Madore didn't take her troubles lying down. She stood up. And ran for election. And won. Now, she hopes to change a rotten system from the top.

Madore, 45, is a DFLer from Apple Valley who ran for the state House of Representatives in 2006 after encountering the indifference of legislative leaders to people in her situation. At the time, Madore and her husband, Paul, were earning about $50,000 a year and struggling to make the payments on their modest home and the $908 monthly premium on their health insurance.

The family's financial well-being was devastated when Madore's daughter, Erica, who was having trouble walking, received a long-overdue $25 X-ray. Until then, Madore said, her doctor suggested that Erica, 9 at the time, was having psychological problems, and he refused to order X-rays. After the Madores went to another doctor, out of their insurance network, an X-ray was done. It showed a tumor pressing on Erica's spinal cord. The operation that followed cost $60,000. Madore learned the price tag when the hospital asked her to pay it.

"But I have insurance," Madore said. "The company says it won't pay for the operation," the hospital replied. "You will have to pay it yourself."

Millions of Americans are one serious illness away from bankruptcy. The Madore family (son Jason is autistic), knows what living on the edge is like.

The only way they could pay for Erica's operation (she is 17 now), was to apply for assistance under a program limited to families with less than $3,000 in cash assets. Madore, working as an advocate for special-needs families, became disgusted with the system and went to the state Capitol to talk with legislators about fixing it.

That's how she met a lawmaker who inspired her. By royally ticking her off.

When Madore told the guy (he's no longer in office) that many families are forced to pay hundreds per month for supplemental insurance policies, he said such policies are a discretionary expense, much like his decision to pay for the cost of his son's hockey ice time.

"I went through the roof," Madore says. "I told him, 'This is wrong, and some day I'm going to come up here and change the system.' He looked at me and said, 'Good luck with that, dear.' Well, that was all I needed. I went home and said, 'I'm running for the Legislature.'"

Madore won the District 37A seat. On Monday, she was part of a group of DFL legislators -- many first-term lawmakers like herself -- who proposed making health care affordable, and accessible, for everyone.

At least 400,000 Minnesotans have no medical insurance; another million or more are under-insured or have policies, like the Madore family, that work only until there is a medical emergency.

The plan to be introduced by Madore and her fellow DFLers is called the Minnesota Health Plan. Its backers say that providing equal access to affordable health care would save hundreds of millions by encouraging disease prevention and reducing the staggering costs of the health care bureaucracy, while providing a safety net to keep families from falling into bankruptcy.

Patients would still choose their doctors, but payments would be based on ability to pay. The DFL's "single-payer" plan, while popular with consumers and physicians, is opposed by many in the for-profit health care industry. So it is likely to face fierce opposition.

But don't underestimate the determination of a ticked-off single mom named Shelley.

"The system is nuts," she says. "If you have a medical emergency, you get tapped out. We need access to health care that is affordable, portable and can never be taken away."

Does Madore worry she will be criticized? Not a chance.

"I can't wait for somebody to call me a welfare mom," she says. "That's what we do every day to thousands of people who need help -- 'It's welfare; it's taking advantage.'

"No, it's not. It's hard-working people. People like me, who think they have insurance until something happens. Then, instead of helping, we ridicule them.

"Well, that's going to stop."

Nick Coleman •