Get Sick, Go Broke

May 16, 2004 -- Posted at 4:33 p.m CDT

JONESBORO -- It happens more than we like to think about. Someone who "seemed" perfectly healthy one day find out they have a serious medical serious they could die. Catastrophic illnesses like cancer are bad enough, then factor in something else. Your finances.  Could "you", like thousands of Americans, get sick and go broke?

Deborah Hinds spends a large part of her day resting. A mechanical sound lets you know that there's a device that's keeping Deborah alive. The "left ventrical assist" pumps blood through her heart while she waits for a heart transplant.

"I was a registered nurse. I worked in critical care,"  said Deborah Hinds.  Now Deborah, also a wife, mother and grandmother, is the one who needs care. "If I didn't have insurance, I really do not... I don't know what we would do because co-pays on my medicines are like 300 to 350 dollars and that's just the co-pay."  Fortunately for Deborah, her husband's employer provides health insurance, other people aren't as fortunate.

"I couldn't afford insurance then and there's no way I'll ever... Nobody will pick me up now, said Stacey Ford, a Jonesboro woman battling breast cancer.  Ford is a single parent with a Masters Degree in Business Administration. She's mom to twins Kaylyn and Lauren, and their little sister, Sydney.  "There was this knot in the center of my chest and it was just abnormal."

The knot was cancer. Stacey had to undergo a radical double mastectomy and even then, she didn't know if the cancer would be gone. "At that time I was looking for a job, no insurance, " said Stacey, shaking her head.

Sttacey qualified for Arkansas' Breastcare program which paid for five surgeries. But, she couldn't work through chemotherapy and is still recovering today. All the while, household bills were and still are mounting. "Food stamps, disability... I applied for everything and anything I could, said Stacey.  She was rejected twice for disability benefits. "I guess the worst part was when I had to borrow money from my children from their piggy bank. That really hurt."

Two women.  One with insurance. One without. But, both facing the strain of catastrophic illness.

"I get calls from the hospital.  I get calls from the home.  They've just been released and when you are trying to heal, part of it is mental. And you're laying there in bed sick... knowing that you have tens of thousands of dollars worth of medical bills," said Warren Dupwe, a Jonesboro attorney.

Dupwe says bankruptcy laws were changed last year... making it tougher for people to file. Fewer people are filing for bankruptcy as a result. But, he points out that the option is still available and guaranteed by the Constitution.

"There's always that fall back from bankruptcy and there has to be, " said Dupwe.  "People have a hard enough time emotionally recovering from trauma."

A Harvard University study last year shows that half of all personal bankruptcies result from families being unable to pay their medical bills, even though they had health insurance when they first get sick. "We get three month supplies and it's about $350 every three months for the co-pays, " explained Deborah Hinds. "That's not the deductibles for hospital or any of that. Doctor visits. That's just medicines."

Since Deborah's heart started to fail, her home caught fire and she and her husband lost everything. So, her church has tried to help through fund raisers like this rummage sale.  Stacey is now able to drive, but tires easily. She finally received disability, but fears she and the girls will have to move soon. There's just too many bills and not enough money coming in.

"I started out OK, but we hit bottom about three month ago. And it's really, I'm looking at selling my house," said Stacey.

"What do you do about your mortgage," questions Dupwe.  "What do you do about car payments, that sort of thing?"

Worst case scenario you get sick, go broke and end up here with your house being sold at the courthouse. It happens more than you might think.

"People think when they have major medical that they've got it covered, said Marsha Johansen, who sells AFLAC.  "Everyone should have health insurance, but it doesn't pay your personal bills. What are you going to do if you loose your house because you don't have the cash in your pocket to take care of that?"   Johansen explains that supplemental insurance like AFLAC  replaces such things as lost wages, and travel expenses to and from medical treatment.   "We give the money directly to the policy holder. You use it however you need to."

However, not everyone can afford this option. So, what can be done if you do get sick and go broke?

"The best way to handle a creditor is to call them first. Stay in close contact. Let them know what's going on and sometimes every mortgage companies will allow you to set up a payment arrangement, to not lose that home, " said Gary Patterson, Clearpoint Financial Solutions.  "The biggest mistake most folks make is they just ignore those debts and that is not the thing to do... because they're not going away."

The wait for a new heart is going none too fast for Deborah. " I don't think you can ever prepare for a debilitating illness," said Deborah. "If you would have told me, you're going to have cancer, said Stacey.  "I would have said, "No way!"