Lack of health coverage spells bankruptcy, indigency and despair
By Catherine J. Rourke
Published September 10, 2005
Charity begins at home and justice begins next door. Charles Dickens
Suzanne Blake had seen it all during her laborious years of nursing – the sick, the dying, the injured and the disabled.
Then she joined their ranks when she seriously hurt her back while lifting a patient on the job. That accident qualified her for disability – a system she claims keeps people like herself on the brink of poverty. So Suzanne chose to keep on working in pain and poverty like many of the working poor.
With just barely enough income to exist, Suzanne remained ineligible for social services, health care or financial assistance. Because she earned just a few bucks over the poverty line to qualify. And now it just became worse because she can't even work.
Three weeks ago a hit-and-run accident left the Rimrock, Ariz., resident, who is in her early 60s, even more disabled and surrounded with a mountain of astronomical hospital and surgery bills.
She was on her way to work as a caregiver.
The former nurse had no health care coverage because she couldn't afford it. Some would say she was better off unemployed. Then she might have had a fighting chance to get state medical insurance.
The land of the free and home of the brave has become the land where it pays to be unemployed.
It could happen to you
It’s a disaster that could happen to any one of us.
No, not Hurricane Katrina, but the aftermath of simply driving down a quiet rural road – minding the speed limit and minding one’s own business. Suddenly, out of nowhere, an oncoming car crosses the double yellow line and veers into your lane. Disaster strikes.
That’s exactly what happened to Suzanne on the morning of August 19, as she slowly drove along a rural, two-lane road in northern Arizona. It was a clear day, and the road posed no hazards as she headed to her part-time job.
Rounding a curve in the road, a white sedan traveling in the opposite direction crossed the double yellow line into her lane. In order to avoid a head-on collision, Suzanne instinctively turned her car onto the right shoulder. It spun twice, hitting an embankment, and her head crashed into the windshield, shattering it.
At first, all she remembered was the excruciating pain – and allegedly seeing the young male driver of the mid-to-late 1990’s car continue on, without stopping, in her rearview mirror – while she lay there bleeding for what seemed like an eternity.
Health care terror
“I was terrified. All I could see was this thing where my leg was supposed to be, but it was all contorted and lobbed over,” Suzanne said. “I was in a state of panic and wanted to scream but couldn’t because I was in complete shock. And I was appalled by the hit-and-run driver’s cavalier attitude and irresponsibility toward human life.”
While there were no witnesses, a motorist who happened to be a paramedic fortunately came along and stopped to help. Suzanne’s forehead was bleeding profusely and she sustained severe cuts and bruises to her face and body.
Suzanne's right femur was broken in the accident, which required immediate surgery. She screamed in pain as the EMTs rushed her to a nearby hospital, where a rod was hammered into the broken bone.
"The real panic in the face of such an accident was not bodily injury but the damages to my wallet, "she said. "As I lay there in the hospital bed watching the IV drip, all I could think was, 'How much is this going to cost me and how I am ever going to pay for it?' I was watching my money drip away along with the IV."
While she remains in painful misery, Suzanne says she is grateful to have her life.
But the quality of that life remains another question, thanks to a American medicine that values profit over people.
"The financial impact of a health system that fails to cover medical care to someone like me is terrifying," Suzanne said. "And that's the last thing anyone should have to think about when trying to recover in a hospital."
Between a rock and hard place
Suzanne is too young for Medicare and receives a monthly income just $60 above the poverty limit. Therefore, she remains ineligible for Arizona Heath Care Cost Containment System medical coverage and responsible for what is adding up to be five figures in thousands of dollars of surgical and hospital bills. And there’s more on the way.
“They toss you just enough so you can barely stay alive in a world where prices have gone totally wild,” she said. “There’s no way anyone can survive on such income, let alone afford health care.”
According to Suzanne, the problem represents an insidious one that trickles down from "good ol' capitalism" and federal policies steeped in it.
“Their meaningless platitudes offer no viable solutions or anything of merit,” she said. “There’s this unbearable indifference to the health or financial problems of many individuals, especially women, despite their efforts to maintain a decent standard of living in these times of economic crisis.”
Suzanne already had a limp prior to the wreck. Now crippled due to the broken femur, she doesn’t know if she’ll walk again, even after physical therapy – if she can afford that on top of her current medical expenses. She is unable to lift, stoop or twist and has no spouse or family to assist her.
“It was difficult enough with my limp before this happened,” Suzanne said. “But now they don’t know if I’m ever going to be normal again.”
Due to a mounting pile of hospital, surgical and medical bills, she worries she’ll lose the home she’s maintained for more than a dozen years. Currently, Suzanne’s mortgage, water and other utility bills remain unpaid due to what she describes as “the medical industry’s incessant demand for minimum payments that are anything but minimum.”
“I just don’t know how I’m going to get through this,” Suzanne said from her hospital bed at Verde Valley Medical Center a week after the accident. “My blood pressure is way up from all the financial worry. I’m trying like crazy not to get in that mode. All I want is to be able to take a warm bath. I really don’t know how I can haul pots of hot water from the microwave to the tub while I’m in a walker.”
Her basic liability auto insurance doesn’t cover a replacement vehicle, nor any medical benefits. Out of propane and unable to take hot baths or cook wholesome meals, she remains even more crippled – financially – than ever before and is already besieged with what she calls “predatory collection agency harassment.” Worst of all, she remains in terrible pain and unable to get around on her own.
Nowhere to turn
“Between the pain and the worry, I have this overriding fear that I will be rendered bankrupt and destitute and lose everything,” she said. “I just don’t know how I’m going to get through this. There’s no one to help me, and the system just leaves you out to dry.”
Suzanne admits that she’s “scared to death” and “worried sick,” which prevents her from getting restful sleep.
“Anyone who thinks they can save money for retirement with the current pathetic wages or ridiculous disability income in light of the high cost of living is fooling themselves,” she said.
“When you see the blasts that working people have been hit with – the frozen wages, the cost of medical insurance, the loss of pensions, the price of gas – you see that there’s nowhere for us to turn.
“I’ve tried so hard; I’ve worked so hard,” said Suzanne, in tears. “But it isn’t working. I busted my tail in health care all my life taking care of other people and then health care put a foot in my face.”
No rhyme or reason
For some things in life, there’s simply no explanation.
The same week that Suzanne’s ordeal began, a wild, random shooting spree left two young Wal-Mart employees dead in a Phoenix Supercenter parking lot. Lacking any motive, the senseless massacre left shoppers stunned and dismayed.
Like Suzanne and those innocent victims, no one is ever completely insulated from unpredictable and inexplicable crisis. Each and every one of us is just one pink slip, one job injury, one accident, one shooting or stock market crash from disaster. What happened to Suzanne can happen to anyone.
This leads many Americans to wonder: How are our communities prepared in the event of an earthquake, a gas pipeline rupture, nuclear explosion, terrorist attack or even a financial crash? How are we prepared as individuals in the event of a terminal diagnosis, an accident or setback that leaves us with a temporary or permanent disability?
According to Susan, most of us simply are not prepared for disaster. And neither is our crippled social and medical system.
“The financial experts all say we have to save, but there’s nothing to even make bill payments from, let alone save for the future. It’s total insanity,” she explains.
Of course, these financial pundits preach from their pulpits well-cushioned with the best medical plans, stock options and golden parachutes, without acknowledging those simply trying to figure out how to put food on the table instead of investing in a retirement plan.
“The degradation of our society has to stop somewhere,” Suzanne notes. “It cannot continue forever. And it has to start with universsal health care. ”
Access to medical care represents a life or death matter. Denying it to people on low-income and thrusting them into debt represents a modern-day Dickensian debtors prison causing 75 percent of all U.S. bankruptcies. And new statistics show a staggering number of deaths resulting from pharmaceutical drug side effects. In addition, the number of low-income people dying from colon, breast, ovarian and other cancers is soaring due to the inability to afford proper care and preventative tests.
Where do we go from here?
Suzanne believes America needs more heartfelt political leaders to start creating positive change. “There has to be a demonstrative paradigm for compassion,” she said. “There’s so little of it left.”
According to Suzanne, too many Americans have lost their ability to think and comprehend what’s really happening in this country.” “We’re lost as a society,” she declared, “and denial is a huge problem. And the ever-increasing number of pharmaceutical prescriptions is turning folks into zombies. ”
Suzanne is not alone in her opinion or her plight.
Not far from her hospital bed, a frail elderly man trudged with difficulty along the highway in Arizona’s searing heat, walking to a bank more than seven miles away, to deposit his Social Security check.
After a lifetime of hard work, the $400 monthly income just wasn’t enough, Harry explained, after giving him a ride. Still, he must toil somehow to make up the shortfall by doing odd jobs, "washing dishes and the like."
Harry couldn’t afford to repair his ‘73 truck and depends on rides like this one to get around. Plus, his water was shut off because he didn’t have enough to pay the bill, and he wondered how he would clean his clothes for work. Since his wife has passed away, he now has to fend for himself.
Have-mores and have-nots
Nobody ever said life was easy, but it’s a long, hard, lonely road for Harry, Suzanne and others like them who have labored hard all their lives for nothing in return.
“It’s such a travesty when the system slams the door on you,” Suzanne said. “We’re good, decent, hard-working folks who devoted our lives to our jobs, our employers and the public. As a dedicated nurse who worked hard all my life, I’m certainly not the sort who milks the system. There are more have-nots in this country than Americans want to admit.”
Meanwhile, the have-mores fret over whether to purchase the terra cotta or the faux marble tile, the roast beef or the leg of lamb, the Pouilly Fuisse or the Chateau Latour.
“The main problem is not the haves and the have-nots,” wrote author Arnold Glasgow, “it’s the give-nots. If you’re not poor enough to take charity, you are rich enough to give it. Real charity doesn’t care if it’s tax-deductible or not.”
What can WE do?
First, let’s join together as a community to lend a hand.
Suzanne is desperately in need of goods and domestic services, as well as donations, to offset her staggering hospital and medical bills. She can use any of the following:
- Transportation services and/or a car
- Animal care assistance and food
- Propane for hot water and cooking
- Food of any kind
- Carpentry, plumbing and wiring services
- Cash donations for utilities and medical bills
Anonymous donors will be assured full confidentiality upon request. To contact Suzanne or make a contribution, e-mail editor@SedonaObserver.com.
Second, America needs health care reform with a UNIVERSAL SINGLE-PAYER system that covers everyone. Visit the Observer's health care section to find more articles and information on health care reform and alternatives to the current for-profit system. Join the fight and defend your birthright to health care!
Sign the petition that could
SAVE YOUR LIFE!
Demand affordable and accessible health care for all Americans now and put your money back in your wallet. We'll deliver this petition along with your comments to our representatives in Washington. SIGN HERE.
Next, let’s initiate some solution-oriented dialogue. Click HERE to post your comments on our blog and join the discussion on health care, housing and other local concerns. Keyword: solution. Please refrain from turning our blog into a whining board and post only pro-active, positive suggestions that can help instead of hinder community discourse that leads to solutions.
Finally, we can maintain individual accountability.
We rush to aid starving children and strife-torn victims in foreign lands, but how often do we realize that people go to bed hungry right under our noses here in this affluent city? While not to diminish the magnitude of the crises overseas or the magnanimous spirit of helping others no matter where they live, one hungry kid in our own back yard is just one too many.
At a time when our societal systems – political, medical and social – are failing us, we must stand by one another in whatever way we can. We, as a community, cannot leave our neighbors along the wayside like road kill, nor let them fall into potholes of a heartless health care system. Is warm water too much for a retired or disabled individual to ask for? Is it so terrible to want a hot meal or lending hand in your golden years?
In the aftermath of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, regular people stepped up to dig through the rubble and dig into their pockets to compensate for what the government and medical systems lack. Again, another victim needs our help.
When we dig others out of their troubles – whether in Louisiana or Sedona – we will find a place to bury our own. Let’s all find it in our hearts to lend Suzanne a hand. And speak truth to power that has crossed the line with our health and well-being for way too long. The next life could be yours.
Catherine J. Rourke is a public service journalist who writes investigative reports about health care, socioeconomic and work-life balance issues. Her mission is to document the untold social justice stories of the 21st century in a way that prior muckrakers did not: by offering solutions. In 2006 her columns won the state’s most distinguished press recognition – a “Community Journalist of the Year Award” – from the Arizona Press Club. E-mail her at editor@SedonaObserver.com.
To contact Suzanne or make a contribution,
This story generated an outpouring of support and donations from across Verde Valley communities to help Suzanne. She is now recovering comfortably at home and thanks everyone who stepped forward to help her. She has even had a hot bath but is telling the collection agencies where to go. (See her comment below.)
The cartoon for this story was donated pro bono in support of Suzanne by Mike Konopacki and Gary Huck, of Huck/Konopacki Cartoons, two of the world's most renowned political and labor cartoonists in Madison, Wisc. For more information about their award-winning cartoons and books, visit www.solidarity.com/hkcartoons. The Sedona Observer gratefully acknowledges these two outstanding artists for their contribution to this story. Their one perfect illustration says it all and is worth 1,000 of our humble words.
COMMENT ON THIS ARTICLE
I want to thank everyone from the bottom of my heart who has helped me through this terrible time. I don't know what I would do without all the wonderful neighbors and churches who have taken up collections to pay my utilitiy bills and bring food. Thanks to all the folks from St. Andrew's who are providing me with rides and the fellow who donated his carpentry services. I'm not out of the woods but I am surviving and taking life one day at a time in gratitude to you and for Ms. Rourke for writing this story after learning of my fate. She came down to the hospital with flowers and spread the word to get me the help I need. I am humbled by her story and forever grateful.
Suzanne needs to apply for food stamps at the state Dept. of Economic Security on Cherry Street in Cottonwood. And maybe file for bankruptcy. That's the only option left in the face of our nation's disgraceful health care system. Meanwhile, thanks to the paper for telling these stories. There must be a lot of other cases like this one out there but we never hear of them since the other papers are too busy telling the stories about the rich gallery and resort owners in town. Keep up the good work!
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