The real cost of health care insecurity

Monday, May 06, 2013

By Melissa Wingo

Coming from a single-parent home, I saw firsthand the struggles that my mother went through every day working for her family. For as long as I can remember, my family has been me, my mom, and my grandmother, three generations of women under one roof. Some guys have come and gone, and sure there is extended family that drops in every now and then if we need the fence fixed or something like that, but for the most part it's just us and for the most part I think we all like it that way.

My mom has had a lot of jobs compared to some, but she has always had a job, whether it is as a factory machine operator, a deli clerk at the grocery store, or a jewelry store attendant. My family was never without food, a house, or transportation and more often than not my mother was able to even provide luxuries for me growing up. I had cell phones, took dance lessons, and was in band. I wasn't spoiled, but I never wanted for much either.

There was only thing my mom would hesitate about spending money on—going to the doctor. As a kid I had allergies and asthma and lots of other things that could and would on occasion make me sick. While my mom held a steady job most of my life, she didn't always qualify for health insurance, and even if she did, I didn't always qualify on her insurance. So if I asked to go to the doctor, she might start telling me the cost and asking me if it was really worth the more than $200 we would be forking out to schedule the appointment. More often than not, I decided, it wasn't worth it.

The result was that I spent part of my childhood in pain and not talking about it. It was better to have a cracked rib than make my mom spend her hard-earned money to take me to the doctor and get it x-rayed, so they could tell me something I already knew and prescribe expensive pain killers when I could take four Advil and try to ignore it. As I got older, I tended to not even talk about my health with my mom. I’d just say I just wasn't feeling well, and that I was sure I'd feel better in the morning. That system worked fine until my junior year of high school.

My junior year in high school I had been having some major cramping that came along with my special time of the month, which at first I ignored until the cramps started coming between the periods. I did my best to ignore the pain, but on occasion, my mom or a friend would catch me cringing or gripping a table trying to steady myself. I bit my tongue as best I could though; my mom didn't have insurance to cover her own prescriptions, let alone to take me to the doctor.

I didn't go to the doctor for the pain until that fateful Sunday morning when my mother and grandmother came home from church to find me collapsed on the floor in pain. Without hesitation, my mom helped me into the car and we drove to the emergency room. The doctors ran a number of tests and discovered that I had three ovarian cysts that were wrapping around my ovaries and Fallopian tubes; they prepped me for immediate surgery to remove the cysts.

While they were debriefing my mom, I could not help but cry. I wasn't crying from the pain, but from the thought of how much this would all cost my mother, and my family. I felt guilty; in my mind I was to blame for getting sick and being in the hospital. I should have sucked it up and dealt with the pain. When the doctors left, my mom asked why I was crying and I told her. The look of horror on her face is one I will never forget. She told me she had never meant for me to try and hide my pain, and that if I really needed a doctor any time that she would find a way to make it work—just like she always had.

During that hospital stay one of the nurses who regularly checked on me told my mother and me about a state program that helped families without insurance cover the costs of all their medical bills. This program literally saved my family. The more than $100,000 that my mother would have had to go into debt to pay for my surgery and hospital visit would have crushed us. Luckily the program covered nearly all of the costs. Looking back, I'm glad I got sick when I did, not only because my mom was there to help me and support me, but also because if I got that sick today, I don't know of any programs that could save me financially.

Melissa Wingo is an Ohio YP4 alum; she is passionate about LGBT equality and creating safe and equitable environments for all students.

This blog post is part of the Strong Families Mama’s Day Our Way celebration. You can read more posts in the series on the Strong Families blogStrong Families is a national initiative led by Forward Together. Our goal is to change the way people think, act and talk about families.