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PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE : After We Had Lost Everything, We Qualified for Help

August 02, 1992|Mary Holle Freeland | Mary Holle Freeland is a free-lance writer

LEUCADIA, CALIF. — This fall, as the presidential campaign gets under way, I'll be looking past all the hoopla to find the candidate who advocates a national health plan. I learned the hard way that such a plan is essential.

In November, 1977, when I was 19 years old, I stepped off a plane and learned my mother was terminally ill. She had withheld the information from me so I could finish my semester at college. I also discovered my mother had no health insurance. Her employer had not provided it. As a single parent, she had chosen to spend her money on raising me rather than on insurance. My father died when I was 11.

My mother and I had one big mark against us: We were middle class. The uninsured rich probably have sufficient capital to cover large bills. For the poor, there is state health insurance, MediCal. Since my mother owned her house and had a savings of about $13,000, she was ineligible for MediCal. At 60, she was too young for Medicare.

My mother, a paralegal, had worked for 40 years without missing a day. Her credit rating was impeccable. Financial devastation could not happen to us. After all, we were good people.

Yet, the only option we had was to lose everything to obtain financial help. With agonizing pain, my mother and I watched her life savings dissipate in the first month. In two months, we owed more than $100,000.

My mother became sicker and bedridden. I didn't like asking for help, but I had no choice. Medical bills were pouring in.

I talked to hospital officials. I wanted to know if I could make monthly payments. An accounts administrator said that I would never be able to afford the monthly payments for such large bills. The only option was to seek help from government.

My case was turned over to the state. On many days, I waited in line for hours to see a caseworker. People stood or sat with blank looks on their faces. Many of the people I met in the office had held good jobs, but lacked health insurance. They were now being wiped out by health-care costs.

When I finally did see caseworkers, they were always apathetic. Their eyes were expressionless, their mannerisms robotic. I am sure apathy was their best defense against the pain and fear of seeing people suffer in at the hands of the system.

With my mother's savings gone, I had to put our house up for sale. It sold in a matter of weeks. The emotional toll lasted much longer. It was hard to accept the reality that the house I had grown up in was not going to be ours any longer. The previous summer, I had been a carefree college student. Now, a few months later, I felt old and tired.

The house sold about the time I had to put my mother in a rest home. The buyers agreed to let me stay rent-free for a few months. I felt numb. I was grateful to them, yet I hated having to "borrow" a house that I had always known as my family's. I detested a governmental system that didn't seem to understand. And, as ashamed as I am 14 years later to say, I was angry at my mother. She should have chosen to have health insurance.

The day after my mother passed away, I received a letter from MediCal. My mother was eligible for coverage. Since we had lost everything, we now qualified.

What did I learn? First, our government is not equipped to assist a middle-class person who lacks health-care insurance. Second, anyone without health insurance must consider the potentially devastating consequences of their lack of coverage. Although my mother was a smart woman, it was her choice not to invest in health insurance. A bad choice.

Today, health insurance is a must in my household. However, approximately 37 million Americans are uninsured. A large portion are middle class who, like my mother, probably think they will be taken care of miraculously. They won't be.

A national health-insurance plan would give the middle class a chance to control their destiny. Illness is never planned. Insurance can be. Writing to senators about the necessity of a national health plan and selecting a President who can make it happen are imperative. No one should have to experience the pain, sorrow and humiliation that I did.

The last months with my mother were worsened by financial burdens. I am sure she hated thinking about what lay ahead for her young daughter with no parents and no money.

My mom always thought she would leave me a home and a few prized possessions, never imagining that a lack of health insurance would leave me only our piano and dining-room table.

To this day, I have been unable to get up the courage to visit my mother's grave. I feel haunted by the fact that I had to give her a "charity burial." My mother's body was buried in a group site with no headstone. No frills, no ceremony. She deserved better.

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