By Lynn Charfauros
While many have focused on the importance of creating stable food and supply conditions during the pandemic, one aspect that has lacked national attention is insufficient insurance coverage. According to the Commonwealth Fund’s Health Care Coverage and COVID-19 Survey, “among respondents with medical bill and debt problems, 35 percent used up all or most of their savings, 35 percent took on credit card debt, 27 percent had been unable to pay for basic necessities like food or rent, and 23 percent delayed education or career plans” (Collins, 2021). While these percentage margins may seem small, when looking at real-life experiences that mirror these numbers, the impact becomes more substantial.
To humanize the statistic mentioned above, I conducted three interviews to understand the stories that exist behind the numbers. First, Skyler, a twenty-two-year-old scholar who is just starting to create a career for herself. When interviewed, Skyler appeared bitter about the subject of insurance and was happy to speak on how complicated the system of medical coverage has been for her. She begins her story by mentioning the slew of tests, medicine, and doctors’ appointments she’s had since the pandemic has started. With a laughable tone she adds “Oh yeah, and the three surgeries”; Skyler injured her ankle in 2017, and has had a rather rough recovery from then until now. Skyler first speaks about how difficult it has been to obtain the health coverage she needs during the pandemic, “It’s been hard, with the doctors’ appointments for my ankle and physical therapy many of my coverage has been out of pocket.” When I asked Skyler if she’s had medical coverage during the pandemic she mentioned yes and no: “It’s a super complicated system, I had Medicaid, but the moment I made a dollar too much I was given notice that I would no longer qualify for coverage. Once I was cut off from Medicaid, I was uninsured for about two months while still having surgeries and doctor appointments it added up quick.” When I asked Skyler how she funded her surgeries and appointments when she was uninsured, she details, “It was a lot of juggling, I went without for sure, I was behind on a lot of bills and my mom had to move things around as well to ensure I could even have the surgery, and when you’re supposed to be recovering the added stress of not having money is even more debilitating.” Seeing Skyler struggle with emotion behind the words, I asked where she stands currently with insurance, and she mentions, “Currently, I pay for private insurance out of pocket, this insurance covered one surgery, but I still have to go further into debt with physical therapy and some medical costs, it sucks to have to question should I pay for physical therapy or Thyroid pills both of which at this moment are impactful to my quality of life.” She continues, “I’m changing to my employers coverage in January it’ll be the first time I’m covered through a non-income based coverage, and one would think I would be excited” she chuckles “As a young professional, it’s difficult, because having medical coverage takes out a lot of your paycheck, and I’m living paycheck to paycheck as it is, so I worry weekly am I going to make it, and the sad thing is I’m in a “good” situation there have been so many people during this pandemic that have become homeless or couldn’t eat for weeks.” I empathize with Skyler’s story, because she’s right, the average American is just “getting by” while many of the other Americans are struggling to keep warm, fed or housed through this pandemic.
The second interview that I held was with my significant other Glenn, a thirty-four-year-old professional in the trade industry. During the pandemic, he and our daughter contracted COVID and were quarantined for ten days. He starts of the interview by stating, “First, I have to say I’m so thankful that I changed jobs when the pandemic started, before my job with Johnson Controls, I worked in the restaurant industry and if you were sick sucks to be you.” I then asked Glenn when he had COVID-19 did he think his insurance had enough coverage to assist him during that time? Glenn Shrugs, “Kind of, I mean if I had to go to the hospital, I’m sure that at some point it would have been okay, but when I was going through the process of trying to see if I had COVID my insurance informed me that I had a $2,600 deductible to pay for previous to any insurance kicking in” he continues “That was the tough part, because they initially wanted to test me for strep, but told me that it would cost $196 just for the test. I was not going to pay that much for a test that may not have even been my diagnosis.” I then asked Glenn if during the pandemic he had gone to appointments that make a dent in his deductible, “I try my hardest not to go to the doctor unless needed, it isn’t a place that I enjoy going to so if I’m not dying, or don’t need to be there I’m not going.” Glenn states, “I had for that year paid about $200 out of the $2,600 deductible, most times I really don’t think I’m going to ever reach that amount, because it re-starts each year, that is how they get you, I mean you have insurance, but do you?” I finished up our interview by asking Glenn what medical costs or needs he obtained when having COVID he states, “Luckily, I believe we had a mild case both Sophia and I had fevers and didn’t feel too hot, but most of our symptoms were okay with over-the-counter medicine, I know it could have been a lot worse and I’m thankful it wasn’t” he reflects “It just makes me think you know, if I didn’t have employment that cared I wouldn’t have made it and I have bills to pay and a child to take care of, it sucks to reflect on, because I know a lot of friends and family that are dealing with that.” Agreeing we finalize his interview reflecting on the friends we have in the restaurant industry who are quarantined and fighting to pay their bills having no support from their companies.
Finally, Anyssa my twenty-four-year-old niece who is an educational assistant in a specialized school for Autism in Arizona. She also contracted COVID with her husband and was required to quarantine for fourteen-days. First, I asked Anyssa about her story of insurance before contracting COVID, if she had coverage and any concerns she stated, “I was on my mom’s medical insurance and Medicaid so previous to contracting COVID I felt super stable, I thought everything would be okay since when I gave birth to Solomon things were covered.” I then inquired, what changed? “Well, my boyfriend, now husband, proposed to me and we got married so I had to get off of my mom’s insurance, and we decided to move to Arizona, so I also lost Medicaid since I was no longer a Colorado citizen.” She laughs, “I picked the worst time to move, if I would have known my family would contract COVID we would have stayed where we had coverage, but I was offered a job in Arizona so we just, went for it” she shrugs. I then asked, was she worried while they were quarantined not having insurance? “Of course! It’s already stressful enough moving states and trying to find a home and settle in, but then getting COVID and not having insurance it was a different level, especially with my condition” Anyssa has since birth had a hole in her heart which has led to multiple surgeries and doctors’ appointments surrounding her cardiovascular health. I then asked her how her medical and life necessities were covered during the time that she was quarantined, “My job didn’t provide any payment for when I was quarantined so I relied a lot on family assistance, if I didn’t have the family support that we did I would have been homeless for sure.” Agreeing, I follow-up with the final question what’s her coverage like now? “I’m not going to lie it’s the same, with a baby, having to work and make a home for ourselves after we’ve moved there’s been no time to look for insurance, I know it’s important, but insurance is so complicated that a lot of the times I freeze up and move on to another task.” We wrap up her interview catching up and speaking about how she can take the next steps towards coverage.
Whether insured or uninsured, or somewhere in between, it is important to think of these interviews as artifacts of real statistics. Real statistics that we should consider the next time we reflect on the pandemic when we have an urge to donate or start a fund for our fellow neighbor. The call of suffering and hurt is so close to home, that it breaks my heart knowing that these stories are just a few of many. So, I ask today, dear readers, is your insurance enough? Are your families? It’s time to start having the conversation.