Anyone with a social conscience or who has just followed the news since 2010 knows that the struggle for decent health care is not an issue that can stand isolated from other intimately intertwined factors, although our medical and political system tries to keep it that way. My tale is not unique….it has been already lived by millions if not tens of millions of others, and the pattern by now has become a familiar horror story, if not a drill: a medical crisis leads to an income crisis which leads to a housing crisis…which can in turn create a further medical crisis. My situation is not the worst, but it is mine and it seems bad enough, so I thought I would share it with Sardonicky readers because living it out in silence does no one any good, and indeed, seems to me to be a form of acquiescence if not complicity with the status quo.
What follows began as a dialogue triggered by an essay recently sent out by William Greider on the failures of the Democratic Party…I shared my response with those on the Email list and it turned into a dialogue with one of the recipients on the efficacy, or not, of our new health care system, the ACA. From my email sent out earlier this month:
“Thanks for getting back to me. Just for the greater public interest and your own education, my private life and struggles are now going public, and I've increasingly been working that perspective into my last four essays, over the past three years. So here are my facts, and I won't take them any further than the Affordable Care Act’s reality for me. I hope the President's plan has been able to help millions.
I receive early SS retirement, reduced amount, out of economic necessity, well under $1500; I receive a small NJ pension under $500 and work part time at Target for $8.97 per hour. As my second year evaluation rolled around in April, I received a 22 cent per hour raise bringing me to that figure. I got a good evaluation. My 2013 gross income was just under $34,000. I am single, divorced. I applied for the OCA (That should be ACA but I guess the “O” for Obama, does just as well) on Dec. 17, 2013 plugged in all the numbers on the Maryland Exchange and was told quickly and bluntly that I did not qualify for a) Medicaid (income cut-off 14,000) and b) any subsidy.
Now I live in one of the most expensive counties in the country, Montgomery County, MD but none of these calculations take that into account, only the income. The County Council's own numbers show that the minimum wage required to be out of poverty is $17.50 per hour. I finish most months with only $100-$200 to spare, sometimes less, and have been living on the edge that way for two years now. I haven't missed a credit card payment yet, but my two bills for the cards are $140 each and bound to rise as the $20,000 in medical bills, or more, is, as slowly as I can manage, added to them. My rent is 1,450 per month and I have to pay all utilities. I still owe my landlord for several months’ rent when my savings ran out three years ago and before the Social Security arrived and I had to go back to work. I live at his forbearance on a month-to-month lease and have, most months, paid him what I can spare as “back rent” owed.
For further economic clarification, and in preparation for testimony before a Republican ethics committee on debtors and personal character, I have not purchased a single appliance or capital good for the past ten years; two pots and pans and a computer (replacing an eight year old one, and a necessity in modern life) in 2011, which went, along with car repairs, auto insurance and vet bills for my beloved Josie, a Belgian Malinois now deceased, on the credit cards out of necessity. My last vacation was 2006 and I didn't pay for it. My car is 14 years old - a VW beetle from much happier times.
So when my heart crisis arose out of the blue (I've never smoked and don't drink) with no prior history...here I am. Over the past week I've spent hours on the phone to utilize the "life event” (I guess they don’t like to use the word crisis, which is surely what it is) clause of OCA in MD, and the drop in income at Target of 50% means I can get a subsidy of $333 per month on the premium and 73% on the co-pays and deductibles...but the only plan I can make is still $165 for the premium plus 900 deductibles and 5200 out of pocket (reduce them by 73%) plus whatever the plan is on drugs (I’ll pay 20-30%). So very helpful, but still an additional expense with my reduced income and other fixed costs. Ah, I forgot to add an important detail: failing to qualify for ACA/OCA in December, I was planning on picking up Target’s medical coverage for part time workers, at a pretty affordable rate. Unfortunately, they dropped it entirely in the early winter of 2014.
I spent most of today on the phone with our Montgomery County's housing assistance programs. We are one of the most progressive and sophisticated county governments in the nation. There is no additional money, long waiting lists (years in some cases) and/or lottery luck for any/all of the housing problems. Summary: no help on the horizon and none likely to arrive. If I get an eviction notice, I can get emergency help for one month rent and security deposit...but there are no available public housing places...go read the private want ads was the advice. The system, as one neighbor told me, gets you a little more help when you are homeless, surrounded by your belongings, sitting in the middle of the street – destitute, in other words. In preventing that destitution, there is almost no help, and women with dependent children will, rightly so, be first in line. I told the social worker that I would kill myself before entering the group shelter system. He seemed to take that easily in stride. I don’t know if that is courage or cowardice on my part, and I won’t know until if and when I stare that situation in the face. And I guess it will depend on your point of view. I’m trying now not to have that staring match.
I live in the smallest one story house type in the entire county built in 1953: about 1100 sq. feet. I don't know if I can survive, if I can find, a small one bedroom apt. near me - they all seem to be 1200-1400 dollars....no help.
So that's the story. With a great deal of luck I can make the August rent, no way September. I have no criminal record, great driving record (although my eyesight is now going downhill) and have 1400 pages - or more than four large books - in essays written over seven years ...you've seen two brief unpolished samples...Such is the state of my state, and our social service "net" for someone in my circumstances at age 64. If the heart troubles (two bouts of angioplasty) don't kill me, the stress of just facing this reality probably will. When I was discharged last week from the hospital after my first operation, I saw the listing of psychological factors contributing to heart disease centered on various types of stress. I scored an A+ on each of them…the basic facts of my life over the past nine years.
And I apologize now for using the term medical "Gulag," that is not the best description.
My mounting waiting room experience though, the beaten, bent people who are being shepherded through a very impersonal system with high technological capabilities and very low humanity treatment ones, leaves me still with the sense that I am in a vast "refugee" flow...that's what it feels like...my appointments aside from the one hospital procedure and one due next week led me to this vision: rather than a "Gulag,"…the complexes where I get diagnosed, blood and credit drawn out of me...are in sprawling one and two story office complexes that go on for square mile after square mile around Shady Grove hospital...like the old industrial towns of Newark, Philadelphia, Camden and Detroit in their glory days, there is a vast subdivision of labor and practice which fragments the experience and ups the demands on patients. It is industrial medicine and I had no idea of the tremendous and confusing physical network which surrounds the hospital.
My last trip to the blood lab, yesterday, went like this: I saw my cardiologist Tues...he said you need this blood work, and have to fast ten hours; I went to the Quest firm, right next door; they don't have a receptionist or an office manager it seems, they all multitask, but I couldn't verbally set up an appointment, face-to-face at their office, I had to call and go through an automated system. When I finally set it up, two days later, and when I went in after fasting at 9:30 for a 10:00 appointment…they said they had no record of it...but took me anyhow after a 35-40 minute wait. The person who drew the blood had a credit card machine right in the examination drawing room; I told her I only wanted to put $50 down, but the system would take only the full swipe for $306. We made each other laugh with the absurdity; but that afternoon I left critical comments about the low morale, lack of receptionist and no office manager to keep it going – and praised the humanity of the worker, caught, along with me, in this vast system of extraction. And reminding them of the outrageousness of the credit card machine in an examination room....
That's all for now, thanks for asking, I needed to get this word out. My "samizdat." I really don't know if I will make it and only the glimmer of the hope that I can tell the story, almost as it happens in real time, to change what others might have to face, keeps me going. “
PS I have emerged alive from my second round of angioplasty, or cardiac catheterization, in technical terms. I tried my best to keep a sense of humanity alive in all my interactions with so many people caught up in this vast system, and I had some wonderfully frank exchanges with nurses, aides and cleaning people. In some ways, I was working to keep their spirits up, besides my own, knowing a bit about “life on the job.” But I failed on the last day, after my overnight stay, waiting and wading through the prolonged “discharge process.” It was the knowledge, beyond my own health and the medical aspects of the hospital, that upon my walking out of that recovery room, I would be heading down to visit the “charity” application office for help in dealing with the vast bills I had accumulated without any medical “coverage.” I knew better, the full risks of not having insurance at my age, of skipping check-ups and all the tests that ought to be run after one turns 50-55, much less 60. And I had lived with and been married to an emergency room doctor myself, a wonderful woman…but the bleak, on the edge finances of the last five years of my life overruled all, seem now like a vast, blind driving fate I could not overcome. And the last part of my body that I thought would let me down, my heart, had done so. So I was angry and yelled at the nurse’s station that after their good medical care I was going to face the grim financial reaper, that was the other side of it and I could not suppress the anger. My discharge nurse then gave me a pep talk about keeping a “positive attitude.” She was very, very good, in retrospect, but that wasn’t her best moment – nor mine either.
(Ed. note -- I'd also like to direct readers to this recent essay by activist and writer Bill Neil.)