Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life

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Donna Smith

Donna Smith, American SiCKO, is executive director of the Health Care for All Colorado Foundation

April 6th, 2012 2:41 PM

Spring Has Sprung and So Has My New Medical Debt

It’s only April – early April at that – and my medical debt is already taking its toll.  After surgery in January, the bills started rolling in before I was able to return to work.  Yes, I have insurance, and I have a job.  So I do consider myself lucky compared to so many Americans who do not.  But I am also in the same boat as tens of millions of other Americans:  we’re building and paying medical debts after an injury or illness that takes our money away from other things.

If only we had a single-payer model, Medicare for life system in the United States.  None of us would need to take on so many bills or choose to stay sick or hurt.  I still often wait for care until it becomes impossible not to wait.  Like so many of us, I just don’t want to deal with the whole mess that is our healthcare system, and I cannot afford to keep adding to the monthly expenses attributable to healthcare.  Rent, food, utilities, transportation, and other necessities have to be paid too.

I had hoped to take a vacation this year.  That’s gone.  The $350 each month in payment plan obligations I just “negotiated” with the hospital and surgeon make taking that vacation a near impossibility.  And if I even thought about a new living room chair or some new pots and pans or even an Easter bonnet (OK, maybe not), now I’ll be trying to keep my cash for the on-going out-of-pocket expenses, medications, co-pays, and deductibles for the rest of the year.

We often hear it said that most Americans – insured or not – are just one illness or injury away from bankruptcy, well I’ve been there, done that.  I know that most of us are one illness or injury away from pulling out of much of the economic activity we might have engaged in all over the nation in multiple sectors of the economy.

Sometimes I feel like insurance just gets me in the door past the financial bouncers at the admissions desks so I can be on the hook for thousands more over and above what is covered by my insurance plans.  And while my husband never, ever has to struggle with these sorts of debt obligations (he’s aged into Medicare coverage, and he has a supplemental policy), my new medical debts sure keep us both from enjoying our lives as fully as we might.    I’d far rather send my grandchildren a few more little gifts or even let one or two visit us for a time then pay another medical bill.

I am indeed so glad I still can access care – when my insurance company approves it, which is its own separate struggle.  But I am so weary of beginning most years with debt I won’t get paid off until the next winter holiday season.  In my sadder, more resigned moments, I just want to make sure I have it all paid off before I die.  I hate thinking that the medical debts will somehow outlive me.

This weekend may be the weekend of Passover and Easter and the hopes that only spring offers.  But until we fix this healthcare mess in America, millions of us continue to begin spring with rising debts rather than budding flowers.

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