|Sick out of luck|
|For N.C.’s uninsured, wellness is optional|
|Published Thursday, May 17, 2012 7:12 am|
Rhonda Robinson remembers what it was like to go without health insurance.
|PHOTO/PAUL WILLIAMS III|
|Carissa Sutherland M.D. examines Janay Powell at C.W. Williams Community Health Center on Tuesday while sister Jaiyah Powell waits her turn. More than 2.5 million North Carolina residents are without health insurance.|
Robinson, a Durham single mother with epilepsy, had to stretch medication after losing her consulting job. She earned too much money to qualify for Medicaid, but couldn’t afford COBRA, health insurance for the unemployed. The result was taking less medication and suffering seizures.
“When I would have grand mal seizures, I would have to go to the ER, which I wouldn’t have to do if I had insurance,” said Robinson, who now has insurance as a fulltime student at N.C. Central University. “It would have been prevented if I had the medication.”
Charity care paid $4,000 for Robinson’s hospital bills, but she is also grateful for insurance.
“It’s a huge impact because I don’t have to skimp on my medication to make a 30-day supply last for 60 or 90 days,” she said.
In North Carolina, 1.6 million people are uninsured. New data from the N.C. Institute of Medicine, an independent agency focused on solving state health issues, shows that 291,000 North Carolinians were added to the ranks of the uninsured between 2004 and 2010, representing an increase of 2.4 percent of the population.
“The sheer numbers are resulting in health agencies having to expand their service and a lot of times without any additional funding,” said Beverly Irby, executive director at C.W. Williams Community Health Center in Charlotte, which offers uninsured patients a sliding payment scale based on family size and income.
“With the sheer number of people who are unemployed or uninsured, it is just taking longer for people to get in and apply for those benefits. A lot of people we see are not only unemployed, but they’re also homeless. Some people are college educated and homeless because they either located from another area and can’t find work here or they have recently became the newly unemployed.”
Providers said that if patients are insured they are less likely to go to the hospital.
“If they have a rash or if they have a pain or if they have nausea, vomiting, then those aren’t truly emergency situations like a car accident or diabetic shock, those aren’t those level of emergencies,” said Sharon Elliott-Bynum, executive director at Healing with CAARE, a free health clinic in Durham. “You don’t want to clog the emergency room up with these non-emergency cases so when true emergencies come in you have enough staff available to treat them, but the truth is that when people have these non-emergencies that’s where they go because according to their ethics policies, they have to treat them.”
Helen McDaniel of Charlotte has an $800 hospital bill because of emergency room visits. A diabetic who works part time, she doesn’t have a regular health care provider. Enrolling at C.W. Williams provides an alternative.
“Part-time doesn’t have insurance so that’s why I’m here right now at C.W. Williams with the sliding scale,” she said. “Because I’m diabetic I haven’t been to the doctor in over a year myself and I need to see a doctor. I really do, so I’m very grateful that they have a sliding scale.”
Tracey Lee said that she also had to be treated at the hospital because her diabetes was “out of control,” but going to Matthews Free Medical Clinic has helped her to manage it. “The clinic has greatly improved the quality of my life,” she said. “I have no idea what I would have done without it. I really suffered before, and I thank everybody involved in this program.”
More people may get Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act in 2014, depending on a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Meanwhile, medical providers are striving to increase resources to keep up with growing demand.
“We have an urgent concern about how our community solves these problems right now and addresses the needs of uninsured and underinsured and whatever happens with the Affordable Care Act that could give us more options, but we can’t afford to wait,” said Susan Furtney, executive director at Care Ring, a Charlotte nonprofit that provides health care to the uninsured. “We can’t pause because we’re really talking about people here.”
Irby said no one knows the fate of ACA, which the Supreme Court will decide this summer.
“In the meantime, we’re doing what we can to tell the story of the sheer number of uninsured,” she said. “The clear story about who is uninsured. It does not have a color. It does not have a face. It does not have a gender - The face is the face of the nation.”
“Probably the biggest shift has been with the middle class Americans losing their jobs who have been staunchly insured for most of their lives,” Furtney added. “They are having to access free clinics, community-based clinics. Those are wonderful safety nets, but they’re very different settings than most middle class Americans have been used to, and some people are so uncomfortable with that transition that they won’t seek care.”
Rev. Kojo Nantambu, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg NAACP, said he lost his health insurance a few years ago when he was laid off from his job as a parent advocate at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. In the last year, he began to suffer back pain for which he had to go to the hospital, and he eventually had an operation.
“Going to the hospital without insurance was one of the most insulting and humiliating and demeaning, disparaging things that happened to me,” he said. “All my life I’ve had insurance. All my life I’ve worked. All my life I’ve tried to take care of myself and here you are faced with a dilemma you didn’t create yourself.”
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