When the histories of the Great Recession are written, there should be a mention of Kathy Myers, the uninsured 41-year-old Michigan woman who got the bizarre idea to shoot herself in the hopes that the doctors who would treat her wound would also treat a torn rotator cuff that had been causing her agonizing pain for a month. The idea is absurd, but then again, so is the health care system.
Myers, like the estimated 46 million or so people who lack health insurance, has options for treatment, but they aren't great. She could have gone to one of the doctors or clinics that work on sliding scales based on a patient's ability to pay. Or visited one of the many free mobile clinics that have popped up around the country as unemployment rates climbed higher. A hospital would have provided charity care for her, as they tend to do for people without insurance.
"Many [uninsured patients] are able to find some level of care," says Cheryl Fish-Parcham, deputy director of health policy for Families USA, a non-profit advocating for patients' rights. But many of these patients need specialized services that they can't get access to. "This year we are getting more and more people calling us needing care ... that's why we are looking forward to health care reform."
While President Obama's health care reform should make it easier for people like Myers to get coverage, many of the law's biggest provisions, including the establishment of state-run insurance markets, won't take effect until 2014. That leaves people like Myers in need of help. Her situation is not unique, particularly in Michigan, which has a 14.1% unemployment rate, the highest in the country. The state's hospitals are being crushed by the cost of providing services to the more than one million residents who don't have health coverage. Most of the uninsured are what is known in government jargon as "non-elderly" adults. Officials from Lakeland Community Hospital in Niles, the only hospital in the town where Myers lives, could not be reached.
Where to turn when things get tough
What healthy people don't realize is that medical bills quickly add up and are responsible for driving many otherwise solvent people into bankruptcy. Should you find yourself in this predicament, there are things you can do to alleviate some of the misery that comes from a lack of health insurance.
The key is to be your own advocate. Health care programs are filled with loopholes and exceptions and it certainly does not hurt to see if you qualify for them. Take COBRA, the government's temporary health insurance program for the unemployed, which many see as a heartless bureaucracy. There are ways to get additional benefits. COBRA may extend coverage for you or your chronically ill spouse for up to 18 additional months if you pay the full cost of the premium, plus a small administrative fee.
People with children should see if they qualify for the Children's Health Insurance Program, a federal-state partnership that provides insurance for families who are unable to afford private insurance and are not eligible for Medicaid. CHIP served more than 7.3 million children in fiscal year 2008, and an additional 4 million children who would otherwise be uninsured may be covered by 2013.
Colleges also offer students low-cost insurance plans, as do many alumni associations and trade associations. Even freelancers such as writers can get access to plans.
Also, keep in mind that medical bills are negotiable. Doctors and hospitals would rather get paid something than nothing. If you don't feel comfortable haggling with your doctor, there are services that will do this for you for a flat fee.
Myers acted foolishly when she thought she had no other choice. The uninsured do have options, though none of them as good having private health care coverage. In the end, Myers' plan did not work. The doctors treated her bullet wound, gave anti-inflammatory medicine and sent her home. It's what they were required to do under the law. She seemed to have belatedly learned her lesson.
"Pain will make you do, silly crazy things," she is quoted as saying. "I thought maybe they would fix me. I guess I should have shot a little lower."
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