Welcome to Where It Hurts, a weeklong series that tells the stories of people in the United States who have gone without health insurance when they needed it most. You can read the first piece in the series here.
Going without has always been the story of health care in the United States. Even with the gains made under the Affordable Care Act, a greater percentage of Americans are uninsured than citizens in most other similarly wealthy countries. We pay more and receive less in return. Things could still get worse.
Recent estimates from the Congressional Budget Office predict that by 2018, the Republicans’ proposed American Health Care Act would increase the number of uninsured people by 14 million. That number will grow to 24 million come 2026. An analysis from the White House puts that increase even higher, at 26 million. That’s nearly the entire population of Texas, the second largest state in the country, losing their coverage all at once.
These are the stories behind those numbers.
Jen is 29 years old. She asked that we not use her real name.
I have had chronic asthma and major depressive disorder for most of my life. My asthma usually isn't so severe that I am debilitated, but some years back I got sick and the illness moved into my chest. That, combined with my asthma, made me very, very sick. I would become extremely short of breath just walking up a flight of stairs. It got to be so bad that I became nearly immobile.
Eventually, I scraped up money for a doctor visit. He told me my lung capacity had dropped so much that I should be in the hospital, which wasn't an option for me because it was too expensive. At the bare minimum, he said, I needed a round of prednisone plus a steroid inhaler going forward. Those cost about $100 each month, which also wasn't an option.
But there was a program through the drug company that would cover the cost of an inhaler for a few months, so I took advantage of that at first. It took another month and a half to get approval and receive the inhaler, during which time I was unable to do any kind of physical labor. And the program was limited in what it offered, so it wasn't something I could keep taking advantage of. It was a short-term solution for a longterm health problem.
But I got lucky. A good friend of mine had a father who was a medical doctor. He offered to prescribe the inhaler to his son, which would be covered by their insurance, who then gave it to me. So that's how I was able to get an inhaler until I got insurance of my own a few years later. Basically through fraud.
My mental illnesses went untreated for most of that time. The PTSD I experienced after an assault, in particular, went untreated for over a year. I had anxiety so bad that I was unable to leave my apartment except to go to the store. I was also afraid of becoming sick again, which compounded everything. I could not find a therapist that would see me without insurance for anything less than what was, to me, a mint—even sliding scale places wanted a hundred or more dollars a month, which I couldn't afford. Eventually I found a clinic through a local school. I saw students. It wasn't the best of care, but it was better than nothing and it "only" cost me about $60 every month.
When I was uninsured I found a lot of little ways to get by without medical care. I found myself making a lot of excuses to never go to the doctor. If a tooth hurts or a cut looks infected, you just tell yourself it'll probably be fine. With stuff like the asthma, I know that if I had just gone to a doctor earlier, back when I firs got sick, then the rest of it never would have happened. But that's how it goes. You just kind of hope you pull through it by yourself and that whatever you have doesn't get even worse.
While the asthma had an impact on me before—I never did sports, running, or anything like that because of it—I found ways to live with those limitations. But that no longer worked when the illness got worse. It all required a radical reshuffling of my life to kind of get around how sick I was at the time.
I mean, my friend's father technically committed a felony when he helped me get my inhaler, though he was fortunately never caught. Like, they frame prescription fraud as something that only drug addicts do, but all he wanted to do was help me breathe.