Only in America: insured – but bankrupted by medical bills

Written by yvonnethornton on July 8th, 2009

There was a story recently in The New York Times about a married couple in Austin, Texas, who thought they were covered by medical insurance. They discovered otherwise when one of them actually needed to use it:

“Too many other people already have coverage so meager that a medical crisis means financial calamity.

One of them is Lawrence Yurdin, a 64-year-old computer security specialist. Although the brochure on his Aetna policy seemed to indicate it covered up to $150,000 a year in hospital care, the fine print excluded nearly all of the treatment he received at an Austin, Tex., hospital.

He and his wife, Claire, filed for bankruptcy last December, as his unpaid medical bills approached $200,000.”

You might assume that, because both my husband and I are doctors, affiliated with two of New York’s most prominent hospitals, we’d never face the issue of inadequate insurance.

If so, you’d be wrong.

When my daughter was in graduate school, she became ill and needed to be hospitalized. She had health insurance through her school. Her hospitalization, CT scans, and other tests, were covered.

But the hospital discharged her before she was completely well and she continued to have severe pain. That’s when we learned that her medical expenses under her policy were capped at $25,000 – and she’d used up the maximum during her first hospital stay.

Because my husband and I had the resources to cover the staggering bills that resulted – physicians, another hospitalization, surgery, tests – our daughter was able to get the care she needed and not go into debt.

But what if we couldn’t be there for her?

It’s not unusual for people, even those who are insured, to lose everything once a major illness strikes. I know of one couple in Michigan. Both had good jobs and health insurance. Then, she got cancer and he needed a heart bypass. His treatments were only partly covered and they fell into debt. They lost their jobs and with it, their insurance. They went bankrupt, lost their home, and just about everything else.

I wish I could say this was unusual but it happens all the time. A recent study showed that 62 percent of bankruptcies in the U.S. in 2007 were due to medical costs. What’s more alarming is that, at the time those people became ill, 78 percent had health insurance. They either lost it when they lost their jobs due to illness or it was inadequate to cover their medical expenses.

And this should illustrate, as nothing else can, why this country desperately needs a public option in healthcare coverage, one that can’t be taken away if you’re too sick to work, one without the fine print that explains how the insurance company isn’t going to cover you when you most need it.

I know there are politicians in Washington, making all sorts of arguments about how, if we allow a public option, we’re on our way to socialized medicine or rationing or, who knows what the latest nonsense is. I’m here to tell you that that’s all it is: nonsense.

These guys rake in tons of money from the health insurance lobby and others who want to keep making huge profits by denying you care when you need it most. Don’t let them fool you as they’ve fooled the American people for so many years. Call your senators and tell them you’re mad as hell, and you’re not going to take it any more. Tell them that all you want from them is a public option so you can be certain help will there when you need it to keep your family well.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH


1 Comments so far ↓

  1. Rita says:

    Dear Dr. Thornton,

    I searched for a way to contact you and hope that this method is valid. Years ago I read an excerpt of your book in Reader’s Digest, began thinking about it again recently and found the book on Ebay (by the way it’s a SIGNED copy – woo hoo!).

    I just finished reading The Ditchdigger’s Daughters for the second time in a few weeks. I wanted to express to you how grateful I am to you for writing this immensely inspirational book. It touches on so many aspects of importance in our lives – focus, determination, work ethic, drive, excellence, wisdom, perseverance and I could go on and on. I am a middle aged white woman who still has a teenager at home. I’m in awe at how your mother and especially your dear father set out with such intentionality to rise above less than perfect circumstances to ensure you daughters (and Betty) broke the cycle of economic struggle. Most importantly, his beliefs and values in regards to education, to abstinence, to family, were so important. If only we could bottle that and sell it to parents today. If only I had an ounce of that emotional strength that your father exhibited from the time you 5 girls were born to the day he died. If only I could do half the job he did imparting wisdom to his offspring.

    Thank you SO much for writing the book. God bless you in everything.


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