Ruined by Health Care:
My Family Learned that  Even with Insurance
We Weren't Safe from Financial Ruin

              By Kate Michelman, The Nation
                  Posted on April 10, 2009, Printed on May 8, 2009

              It was a crisp and brilliant autumn day last October when the medical and financial crises
              with which my family had successfully, if barely, coped for seven years became a

              My husband had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2002, a year after our
              daughter was paralyzed in a horse-riding accident. His balance had deteriorated until he
              fell two or three times at home last summer. In the face of his diminishing physical
              condition, a single fall could result in disastrous injury. We scheduled an appointment with
              his neurologist in Washington.

              We pulled up to the main entrance of the hospital after the two-hour drive from our home
              near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. My husband opened his door, grabbed the roof of the car
              and began to pull himself out as I walked around to help him. I was too late. In an instant
              -- time slowed enough for me to see the danger but raced ahead too fast for me to reach
              him -- he lost his grip and fell to the concrete, shattering his hip, breaking his femur and
              causing internal bleeding that kept him in the hospital for months.

              My husband is a retired college professor, and what the teaching profession lacks in salary
              it often makes up for with generous benefits. His health insurance would cover most of the
              emergency costs related to the fall -- the surgeries, the hospitalization, the drugs. But in the
              astronomical sums the cost of medical care often entails, "most" is not a reassuring word.
              Months later, as his discharge from the hospital drew near, I sat in my living room looking
              at the bills piling up on the table. The co-pays, uncovered care and other costs had already
              reached $8,000, and we had virtually nothing left.

              Seven years of caring for my husband and our daughter, who had no insurance at the time
              of her accident, had all but exhausted our savings. As my husband's condition deteriorated,
              I was caught in a trap. We needed my income, but the kind of political consulting work
              that was my forte was incompatible with the demands of caring for him. It was simply not
              possible for me to be available for him 24/7 and simultaneously to work overtime, traveling
              for days or weeks on the campaign trail, to bring in the income that would keep us afloat.

              The fraying financial thread by which we were already hanging was now certain to snap.
              When I heard the awful sound of my husband's body hitting the concrete outside the
              hospital, I knew the modicum of independence to which he had clung for so long was
              gone. He was discharged into an assisted-living facility, where most of the cost was
              excluded from both his private long-term-care insurance and Medicare. At $9,000 a
              month, the bills accumulated quickly.

              Recently, we decided to bring him home, although the doctors would have preferred that
              he stay at a facility with full-time supervision. But this was a mathematical decision, not a
              medical one: we do not have the money it costs to keep him there. I had already stopped
              working, to care for him; our savings are nearly depleted; and his pension is not nearly
              large enough to pay the bills.

              Today he needs nearly round-the-clock professional help at home -- less than the cost of
              the assisted-living facility but still far more than we have. I have spent recent weeks looking
              for a job that can add at least enough to my husband's pension and our Social Security
              benefits to cover the cost of his care. It is a dilemma familiar to so many women -- finding
              work that can pay for care but also leave time for providing it.

              The time is drawing near when, job or no job, the expenses will simply be more than we
              have. I am coming full circle, back to where so many women's lives begin and end -- and
              where my career as an activist began: jobless, unsure how to pay the next month's bills,
              caring for a family that depends on me for survival -- and utterly and deeply determined
              that something about our country must fundamentally change.

              That was in 1969. My first husband had abruptly left my three young girls and me,
              stranding us without financial support. Our family was in crisis, and when I found out a few
              weeks later that I was pregnant too, I knew it was impossible to give a new baby --
              whose father had already deserted it -- what it deserved while also giving my daughters
              what they needed. So in 1969 I made the difficult decision to have an abortion. Because
              state law radically restricted access to the procedure, that decision had humiliating
              consequences. I was forced to obtain permission both from the man who had abandoned
              my daughters and me and from an all-male hospital review board. The board's
              interrogation in a hospital conference room covered subjects like whether I was capable of
              dressing my children in the mornings and whether I had been satisfying my husband

              That experience sparked a lifetime of activism that eventually took me to the front ranks of
              the prochoice movement, where I forged deep and lasting friendships with some of the
              most powerful political figures of the past thirty years.

              Not many Republicans were among them. But there ought to have been more -- because
              in a distant era fast receding in time, theirs was the party of moderation and individual
              rights, and also because, ironically enough, I have led precisely the life Republicans claim
              to value. I started as a single welfare mother, then worked my way through college en
              route to a successful career. My second husband and I have sustained a traditional and
              loving marriage for thirty-five years. He purchased quality health insurance, including
              long-term-care insurance, so he would not be a financial burden to others. He enjoyed a
              long and steady career at an institution that would pay healthcare costs and a modest
              pension for life. Between his salary and mine, we achieved a reasonable degree of
              economic comfort -- never wealthy but independent, self-sufficient, responsible.

              Then came our daughter's accident.

              We got the call in 2001. She was pursuing her lifelong love of horses as a trainer in upstate
              New York. One day in May her horse got spooked, reared up and fell over backward on
              top of her, crushing three of her vertebrae and paralyzing her for life.

              The weeks and months that followed included multiple surgeries, a long hospitalization and
              extensive rehab. The bills were exorbitant, to say nothing of the fact that our daughter
              probably would never again be able to support herself through full-time work.

              When the bills came in, it never occurred to me that walking away from them was an
              option. I cashed in the IRA on which we were depending for retirement and paid them

              My husband's diagnosis followed just as our daughter was beginning to stabilize.
              Eventually I had to leave work to care for him, and our financial independence
              deteriorated on a parallel track with his health. The story is familiar: the medical crisis that
              becomes a financial one. Still, we were able to hold things together, moving from one crisis
              to the next but finding a way to get by.

              That ended in October. We quickly learned that not even the most frugal planning is
              enough to cope with surging healthcare costs. The long-term-care insurance barely covers
              a fraction of his long-term care. I will care for him at home, but a time will come when
              even our home might be at risk: if he needs nursing home care, Medicaid will pay for it
              only after we have liquidated most of our assets. Consequently, a blessing -- my husband
              could live like this for years to come -- is also likely to bankrupt us.

              I do not tell this story because it is unique. On the contrary, the point is precisely that
              countless people across the country are living it. And millions more are a crisis away from
              joining them -- one lost job, a diagnosis, an accident. Most people do not have the luxury
              of being able to call, as I do, on powerful friends for help. Not even these friends, of
              course, can change the predicament my husband and I face. Nor will the situation change
              for anyone until political leaders get serious about comprehensive healthcare reform.

              By "comprehensive," I mean that piecemeal approaches will not work -- not economically,
              not morally. The healthcare crisis is not a series of isolated problems. The problem is not
              just the uninsured. It is not only the underinsured. It is not the young or the old. My
              husband had excellent health coverage; our daughter had none. He faces chronic illness in
              the twilight of life; she suffered a terrible injury just as her adult life was beginning. Between
              them, they span the complete spectrum of healthcare economics in America, but when
              crisis struck, they found themselves in the same place.

              Our story also illustrates the unique challenges women face in the healthcare system, as in
              the economy at large. Women are paid less and given benefits less frequently -- yet they
              are the ones on whom the responsibility of caretaking disproportionately falls. In addition,
              women disproportionately, but hardly exclusively, understand the perverse economic
              choices the healthcare system imposes. In my case, I had to quit working to care for my
              husband, only to arrive at a point at which he needs care I can afford only if I can find a
              job. The bills, meanwhile, are often inexplicable, sometimes contain mistakes and are
              always impossible to resolve without encountering a thicket of red tape.

              Even on the other side of that thicket, the insurance companies cannot answer the most
              vexing question my husband and I -- and so many others -- ask: if "health insurance" does
              not pay for healthcare when people need it, then what exactly do those words mean? And
              all this says nothing about the fact that my husband had the foresight to purchase
              long-term-care coverage. The problem is that it nominally covers long-term care but does
              not cover its actual cost.

              I am often told there is a shocking quality to our story -- it prompts a realization that if this
              could happen to someone like me, it could happen to anyone. But of course there is little
              that ought to surprise us; political connections are bound to be of little avail in the face of a
              problem politics has refused to address.

              If there is an upside to the country's healthcare crisis, it is that the problem is hurtling
              toward a point at which it absolutely cannot be ignored without immediate and disastrous
              consequences. If there is an upside for me, it is this: returning to those difficult days of
              poverty and fear in 1969 also means returning to a place where anger inspires activism. I
              was a young woman then, of course, with a lifetime of battles ahead. I am not so young
              now. But I have enough years left to have one more fight in me. Healthcare is it.

              Kate Michelman was president of NARAL Pro-Choice America from 1985 to 2004.
              She is the author of With Liberty and Justice for All: A Life Spent Protecting the
              Right to Choose (Penguin/Hudson Street Press, 2005).

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