“We were thinking of living life until we’re old and 100 together,” says Cynthia Miceli.
“You’re just walking around and you don’t know which day the switch goes on and you wind up with something like this,” her husband Frank says.
As it has for thousands of people in Washington, a lack of health care coverage and a sudden illness has a way of messing up our plans.
The Micelis were living a typical Northwest life like the rest of us in their Vancouver, Washington neighborhood.
Cynthia had a home-based business, Frank had a good job and they even had the “white picket fence in front.”
That changed when Frank, a transportation manager for a company in Vancouver was laid off during the economic downturn a few years ago. The health insurance they had through Frank’s job went away at the most inopportune time.
“He started losing weight and we thought it was because he lost his job and he wasn’t eating junk food, so we kind of blew that off. Then he had back pain and we kind of blew that off too, but the pain got progressively worse,” Cynthia says. “He wouldn’t go to the doctor because he was afraid it would bankrupt us.”
Frank fell and couldn’t get up because his legs were too numb.
“The emergency room doc was immediately concerned. I could tell by the look on his face that something was wrong,” she says.
“They gave us the bad news that he had Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and it was extremely widespread. He had spinal cord compression which was causing the paralysis in his leg.”
He was hospitalized for three weeks for a series of tests and biopsies. He was on a high dose of steroids and received emergency radiation treatment to shrink the tumors.
“I would have never expected cancer,” says Frank. “I never led a lifestyle that would make me feel that cancer would be in my future at all. I never smoked; never did all the funny things they tell you you’ll get cancer from, but you never know who’s going to get cancer.”
With no health insurance to see doctors for regular care they waited until the pain became unbearable and went to the emergency room.
Over the course of 10 months, he was hospitalized 15 times.
With each trip to the ER, the costs rose higher and began to swallow the couple.
“Each hospitalization was like $100,000 easy,” Cynthia says. “You’re thrown in a crisis mode, you’re not thinking clearly, and you’re trying to (live) the life you’re dealt with. I kept thinking day after day my husband is going to die because we don’t have the money. They’re going to give up on him.”
The bills topped $1 million, but the Micelis say they we were saved by Medicaid.
When the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, kicks in, more couples like the Micelis will qualify for a subsidy.
Individuals who make less than $15,856, or $32,499 for a family of four, will qualify for Medicaid under the federal-state plan that has been expanded.
“There’s no way anyone could afford the medical bills that we have. I don’t care how hard you work your whole life, or how rich you think you are,” she says.
For a while, Frank’s cancer was in remission. Now it’s back. He needs a stem cell transplant.
“Unfortunately we’re all going to need health care services before we die and we can’t pick our illness to say, ‘Oh I’ll just have a less costly illness than cancer or open heart surgery,’ says Cynthia. “We can’t pick that.”
By LINDA THOMAS