Thursday, October 8, 2009

Being Uninsured In This Country Is No Laughing Matter...

Last night on The New Adventures of Old Christine-- which is currently in its fourth season, and if you haven't been watching all this time, then I don't even want to know what you do on Wednesday nights!-- Christine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) finds an odd mole and panics. Now, if you have seen the show, you know that Christine panics about just about everything; she is not very functional as an adult human being, and that's what makes her exploits so funny. However, in this case the issue at hand is all too real: as a small business owner who makes ends meet but doesn't have much left over for anything else but wine, Christine has no health insurance. The show may be a comedy, but being uninsured in America today is anything but.

Judi Ward was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer (leiomyosarcoma-- or "LMS") in August of 2009. It is the kind of cancer that is going to require an invasive surgery, followed by appropriate chemotherapy and/or radiation, as well as plastic surgery to reconstruct where they have to go in and remove the tumor. Ward, who spent her whole life living and working in Ventura County, was laid off from her job last year and could not afford to go out of pocket on an individual healthcare plan once her Cobra ran out. The irony is, being too young to qualify for Medical or Medicare, Ward's medical bills from this one procedure alone are going to run up close to half a million dollars.

Last Saturday, Ward's daughter, Jen Johnson, along with her brother, Nick Pileggi (another brother is Mitch Pileggi, veteran actor best known for his work as Skinner on The X-Files but best known to ME as Grandpapa Winchester on Supernatural), threw a fundraiser for Ward at PC's Bar and Grill up in Simi Valley. Friends, family, and fans were invited to come partake in a rousing raffle in which they had the chance to win cool prizes such as Chanel bags, jewelry, and autographed X-Files memorabilia. I admit I only learned of the event and the specific details of Ward's situation due to the cause having Pileggi's name attached, but once I got there, the focus very quickly shifted. It is now abundantly clear just how serious an issue being uninsured is in our country.

Ward first stopped by her local free clinic when she started to think something was wrong, but they pointed her in the direction of the emergency room instead, somewhat ironically citing that "there they won't turn you away." Of course not, but emergency room visits do not come cheap! Furthermore, the medical world is a trial and error profession, and it can take a handful of MRIs, CAT-scans, and other tests and procedures before a diagnosis is made, which all just works to make the hospitals, therefore costing the patients, even more money.

Ward did get it taken care of, though when the verdict was in and was not a positive one, she started to really understand just what kind of a toll this was going to take on her-- and not just physically but also emotionally and financially. When she should just be focused on getting better and beating this disease, she is going to have to worry about how the bills will be paid. Once Ward has her surgery, she will qualify Social Security/Disability, but using up all of her savings will no longer allow her to retire comfortably, if at all.

And getting Ward through the hurdle of the surgery is a whole other can of worms. Cancer is a vicious disease, and it spreads like it has a mind of its own. Ward's doctors were worried that the cancer may have metastasized in her lungs, so they ordered additional testing. This was back in August. Ward has a surgery date of October 22, undoubtedly so late because they were worried about how she was going to pay. Ward has also been told that she needs to come up with a "deposit" in order to even keep her surgery date from being pushed back even later; the hospital wants to ensure she can pony up the cash before they dedicate a room, personnel, and a chunk of time (she will have to stay in in-patient recovery for about ten days post-op) to her over another patient. "My son jokes that they are holding my surgery date hostage," Ward leaned forward and smiled, glancing at her son out of the corner of her eye. But really, that's exactly what they are doing.
Ward and family at PC's Bar & Grill fundraiser.

The amount Ward needs for the deposit is ten thousand dollars, not a sum that most people just have lying around these days. And that number is only about five percent of what the total cost to her will be when all is said and done. Hence the urgent need for this fundraiser. Johnson was happy to report that the event brought in close to three thousand dollars toward that bill, and she hopes to do another similar event again soon. In the meantime, though, donations can be made through this special website set up by Johnson to help her mom.

Though the reason behind the day was extremely serious, that is not to say the tone inside PC's was somber by any means! In fact, I brought along the other girls from my non-profit organization IBG Inc, and our table promptly became known for housing "Woo Hoo" girls! Ward, though clearly in a lot of physical pain, proved she has more than enough fight in her to beat this disease, as she made the rounds to everyone who came out to support her and made us all laugh in the process. "I would never ask for this," Ward explained quite seriously. "But my kids said 'Mom, you have taken care of us our whole lives, and we want to do this for you.'" It was touching to see the obvious love in their family and the outpouring of support by their friends and community, but the truth of the matter is, no one should have to do this. The system that Ward worked so hard her whole life to put into should take care of her.

I have said before that I do not like to get preachy-- or even too political-- on this website, but I found this issue and this cause was just a little too close to me personally not to speak out. Not only did my own mother pass away from one of the rarer forms of cancer, coincidentally in August, but as a freelancer, I often fell into tough times where if I was going to make cuts from my monthly spending, I figured the first thing to go would be my out of pocket Blue Shield health plan. After all, I don't like doctors, needles, or hospitals; I don't like how the medical world is run by big business; and I would only go "in case of an emergency." I basically felt like I was throwing money away every month, having the insurance and not even using it. But then I hear a story like this, and I wonder, even with coverage, would the insurance company call such a diagnosis a "pre-existing condition" and refuse to cover it? Right now, the odds are not so great for Americans. After hearing Ward's story-- and knowing there are thousands others out there in similar situations-- how can anyone fear change so much they don't stand up and call out for healthcare reform? No matter what your political affiliation, if you've ever had a family member, friend or co-worker diagnosed and/or living with a long-term or otherwise debilitating disease-- or if you're just a fan of the human race in general-- now is the time to "cause a ruckus!"

Please go forth and donate. And then email your local Congressman and find out what you can do to move forward a change in healthcare.


Kate, Dating in LA said...

This must be so scary for her and her family, yet they seem to be dealing with it with so much grace and humor. The "deposit" on the surgery is particularly troubling knowing that sooner in these situations is always better.

Karen said...

This cause hits close to home and I'm so glad that the fundraiser went so well. It was so lovely to meet the family and hang with friends, all while raising funds and awareness.

JenJen said...

Danielle - thank you so much for writing this article. It was very touching and definitely made me cry. It makes me so sick to my stomach that my mom has to worry about money while she is in the fight for her life. And the fact that they waited 2 months to schedule her surgery makes me even more sick. When my dad was diagnosed with cancer, he had surgery within a couple of days of finding out. It just doesn't seem fair. Anyway, thanks again and it was so nice meeting you and all the "Woo hoo" girls. Hopefully we will get to see each other again soon at the next fundraiser.

Anita Donohoe said...

Danielle, thank you for writing such a powerful and caring article about Judi's difficult condition. She is a longtime friend, ever since we were classmates in 1962 in Ankara, Turkey.

The good news is that healthcare reform is on its way. Unfortunately, it is not soon enough for Judi and the thousands of other Americans in similar positions.

Keep up the good fight!