Medical-related “bankruptcy” a hard pill to swallow

By Justin Coby

Contributing columnist

The staff at Health Partners Free Clinic (HPFC) had never been more perplexed than when a recent encounter with a new patient revealed to them a whole new side to the healthcare system. The patient said, “Once this bankruptcy goes through, and we get my medical debt behind us, we will be able to start saving for this years’ (insurance) deductible.”

This patient is just one example of the changing faces of our patients here at HPFC. The aforementioned patient was in every regard, a “normal” person. As part of a five-member household that survived her husband’s income, this patient was insured by his employer. The husband works a full-time job and supplements their income with a part time “side-gig” to make ends meet.

Sound familiar? Like many of us, just hard-working folks doing the right thing to provide for their family. It’s a great road map to follow as long as the bumps are few and far between.

I don’t know about you, but the word “bankruptcy” just sticks in my throat and is hard to swallow, especially when people are also suffering physically. I believe we live in the greatest country in the world with the greatest health care. It’s the administrative “system” that inflicts the largest, long-lasting wounds.

While that “system” has its challenges, it still provides health benefits. I thank God that I’m blessed and humbled to be part of this assembled team here to help people through such nightmarish obstacle courses.

In 1998, HPFC incorporated with the mission of providing the uninsured and under-insured residents of Miami County with quality healthcare. I’m not sure our founding fathers (and mothers) realized how many folks with unaffordable health insurance plans there would be over the next 17 years. To be honest, today we are still caught off-guard by this.

Yet, everything about this family’s day-to-day normalcy began to breakdown when, just three years ago, a medical diagnosis shook their foundation. Leukemia was the home-wrecker. Chemotherapy and stem-cell transplant would be the reinforcements.

Ultimately, the patient survived the battle, and now lives a life of gratitude, seeming almost eerily upbeat. The kind of attitude that is both inspiring and infectious.

However, during this family’s medical onslaught, the patient’s insurance policy required an $8,000 deductible be met before they would be able to receive any coverage. When compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars for the procedures themselves, the $8,000 doesn’t seem quite so bad. Regardless, if someone does not have $8,000 saved-up to spend on an unpredictable or unplanned expense in a given year, the bill might as well be $8 million. This Mount Everest of expense was unascendable for the patient, and the family had no other choice but file bankruptcy.

In addition, the patient now faces health issues and high blood pressure, as a result of the chemotherapy. Hence, the reason the patient came to the Clinic to find assistance in these gaps. More doctor’s appointments and expenses are to come for years.

This is the ripple effect of major illness. Once the chief malady has been fully addressed, the patient still faces many more medical issues and bills. It all does not just stop immediately, and that is misunderstood by those that are blessed enough not have to fought the battle.

This story is just one of countless situations that we see at the Clinic. Today we are encountering a rise in this patient demographic, where the insured have started becoming the victims. The face of our patient has transitioned from only the devastatingly poor (though still prevalent), to also include the entire spectrum of socioeconomic diversity that makes up the Miami County population.

For example, there is the new entrepreneur that must find private insurance options during those fragile first five years of a new business, who could be just one weekend warrior injury away from a large medical setback. Then, there is also the baby boomer returning to school whom might have their new career path derailed by an unexpected heart-attack.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA or Obamacare) has made some great steps in providing insurance for many more people in our county, chipping away at the insurance instability that was a reality only two years ago. As is evident, more work is to be done.

Justin Coby has been affiliated with Health Partners Free Clinic as a volunteer pharmacist since 2007, and was appointed executive director in 2012.

Justin Coby has been affiliated with Health Partners Free Clinic as a volunteer pharmacist since 2007, and was appointed executive director in 2012.