There has never been a time in my life when I’ve owed a lot of money. That certainly has changed this past two years as my husband and myself find ourselves with medical debt that we may never pay off . As you can guess, we have no health insurance — we can’t afford it and even if we did have an extra $650 a month we couldn’t obtain it due to our pre-existing conditions.
Briefly, I had emergency surgery to remove a cyst on my ovary in 2010, a diagnosis of an autoimmune disease in 2011 and two bladder cancer surgeries in 2012. My husband has had high blood pressure for over 25 years due to a heart defect discovered in his 30s.
My husband and I live very simple lives and have little debt. For the past 18 years we’ve been self-employed, owning a retail music store, and for many of those years I worked for other companies. Some offered medical coverage, some did not. And for some of those years I was able to offer medical coverage for our few employees which also covered my husband and myself. The group coverage was minimal and started out being affordable but with increases it was impossible to afford for long. I tried catastrophic coverage but that was almost as expensive as regular coverage but with a higher deductible. Of course, neither my husband nor I needed the coverage when we had it. They say youth is wasted on the young. I say health insurance is wasted on the young.
The medical community has been great. From the cashiers who expect payment for services rendered that day to the lawyers who try to collect for the hospital system. They all understand and have spoken with many people who can not pay the high cost of medical services. I continue to be touched by the expressions of concern and their desire to help.
In October I had to visit my OB/GYN after not seeing her since 2010. As I explained all the medical woes I’ve experienced since our last visit we talked of the uninsured people who work but don‘t have insurance. She surprised me at the end of the exam by not charging me. To say that it was a relief not to incur yet another bill is an understatement. I was brought to tears.
Last week I had my first mammogram in three years and I expect the bill to be over $300. The last time I had a mammogram it was around $100. The technician encouraged me to have one next year but then understood my reluctance due to the cost so she gave me contact info for the Susan G. Komen Foundation. So I will use that resource next year thanks to her kindness. And I don’t have words for the services from the free clinic. They are the only reason I can get a 3 month checkup for the bladder cancer. It’s over $800 for a check up at the urologist office.
Preventive care is a luxury for all the people I know who own small businesses. Very few I know of have health coverage. Mammograms? Colonoscopies? Annual checkups? We have to see blood before going to the doctor. It’s a given that minor ills like the flu, ear ache, aching joints, and unfamiliar pains don’t warrant doctor visits. Much less a trip to the hospital’s emergency room services where a visit costs several thousand dollars. While my husband and I waited for admittance into the hospital through the emergency room for the cyst surgery we overheard a woman asking to be seen for carpel tunnel syndrome. She’d evidently had been there before too. Carpel tunnel syndrome is an emergency?
So my husband and I find ourselves in our mid to late 50s in the terrible position of trying to find doctors that will see us without insurance, trying to explain to bill collectors that we must pay in (very) small installments and trying not to be too embarrassed about our situation. And it is embarrassing. Owing $20,000 is like having a weight on your shoulders and it’s very worrisome. You can image what the cost was before the hospital system gave us a charity case discount.
I still consider my husband and myself young and in good health. We do all the rights things about taking care of ourselves and expect many more wonderful years together. But we’re really looking forward to age 65 when we’re eligible for Medicare.
Kelly Wooten is a patient.
This post originally appeared on the Costs of Care Blog. Costs of Care is a 501c3 nonprofit that is transforming American healthcare delivery by empowering patients and their caregivers to deflate medical bills. Follow us on Twitter @costsofcare.