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5 jobs and health insurance: One couple’s struggle to pay off $12K in medical bills

This is a Kaiser Health News story.

Robert and Tiffany Cano of San Tan Valley, Ariz., have a new ..

This is a Kaiser Health News story.

Robert and Tiffany Cano of San Tan Valley, Ariz., have a new marriage, a new house and a 10-month-old son, Brody, who is delighted by his ability to blow raspberries.

They also have a stack of medical bills that threatens to undermine it all.

In the months since their sturdy, brown-eyed boy was born, the Canos have acquired more than $12,000 in medical debt — so much that they need a spreadsheet to track what they owe to hospitals and doctors.

“Im on these payment arrangements that are killing us,” said Tiffany Cano, 37, who has spent her lunch hours on the phone negotiating payoff plans that now total $700 a month. “My husband is working four jobs. I work full time. Were a hardworking family doing our best and not getting anywhere.”

The pair, who earn nearly $100,000 a year, are insured and have had no major illnesses or injuries. Still, the Canos are among the 1 in 4 Americans who report in multiple polls that the high cost of health care is the biggest concern facing their families. And theyre at risk of joining the 62 percent of people who file for bankruptcy tied to medical bills.

“Oh, yes, that worry is always in the back of my mind,” Tiffany said.

The family is part of a struggling group: middle-class folks who have followed the rules and paid for employer-based medical insurance, only to find that soaring health care costs — combined with high deductibles, high copayments and surprise medical bills — leave them vulnerable.

“I thought wed be covered, and its just not enough coverage at all,” she said.

Robert Cano, also 37, had family health insurance for 2018 through his job as a manager at a large-chain retail store, for which he pays nearly $500 per month. The plans $3,000 annual deductible and 40 percent coinsurance fees have added up faster than the Canos anticipated.

First came the nearly $4,000 bill from the in-network hospital where Brody was born Jan. 2, followed by separate fees from the anesthesiologist and the doctor who performed the routine delivery. Then, at 2 months, Brody was hospitalized with breathing problems doctors said could be related to allergies or asthma. In May, Tiffany came down with a stomach virus that sent her to the emergency room for drugs to treat nausea and dehydration. In October, the baby developed a bad case of bacterial conjunctivitis, or pinkeye.

“Its been, like, $300 here, $700 there,” said Tiffany. “We had a hospital bill for him being sick of, like, $1,800.” Unable initially to find a pediatrician she liked, Tiffany has agonized over whether to use the ER when Brody gets sick. When he had pinkeye, she debated whether to take him in, hoping it would get better on its own.

Then he got worse, she said, pulling up a photo on her phone of her son with half-moons of red, puffy flesh under his dark eyes.

“I let him suffer for a day like that,” she said.

The Canos lost their first child, a girl, midway through her pregnancy in 2016. Tiffany acknowledges that experience has left her more anxious than the average first-time mom.

“It gave me so much fear that something would happen to him,” she said.

As for their own health care needs, the couple put themselves lower on the priority list. Tiffany has used a prosthetic limb since childhood, when her lower left leg was amputated because of a birth defect.

She needs a new prosthesis because her body changed during pregnancy, but she cant see how to afford it.

A model suitable for the busy life of a working mom would easily cost $10,000 to $15,000, according to Tom Fise, executive director of the American Orthotic & Prosthetic Association.

“I try to push through,” Tiffany said. “I put on that brave face of just walking, but its so painful to walk. I have bruises all over my leg. I get blisters all the time.” Lately, shes been wearing an old prosthesis, one she used in high school, because its more comfortable.

The Canos dont know how exactly they fell into such debt, since they tried hard to make responsible decisions. After meeting three years ago, they knew quickly that they wanted to marry and have a family.

“I waited until I found the right guy,” said Tiffany, who was thrilled when, in 2016, they were able to afford a 2,500-square-foot, two-story home in one of the stucco-and-tile neighborhoods an hour outside Phoenix.

But, taken together, the medical payment plans and premiums are almost as much as their $1,300 monthly mortgage. All told, the Canos spend about 15 percent of their annual income on health care, almost three times the average for non-Medicare households in the U.S.

That leaves too little for day care, car payments, gas, food and dozens of other domestic expenses, Tiffany said.

For 17 years, Robert Cano had comprehensive health insurance through his job as a soldier in the Army Reserve and paid little or nothing for medical care. He left the Army in 2017, however, after he learned he would be deployed for an extended time away from his wife and new son.

“I told them, I have to be at home,” he recalled. The Army insurance ended on Dec. 31, 2017, two days before Brody was born.

That meant moving to his employers insurance plan. Like more than 40 percent of 152 million Americans who get health insurance through work, the Canos are enrolled in a plan that demands thousands of dollars before any coverage kicks in.

The couple discovered that they earn too much to qualify for financial assistance from medical providers, or for subsidies if they shifted their insurance to a plan under the federal health insurance exchange. She is a full-time bank compliance officer. He is a full-time store manager.

Tiffany wrote to KHN after seeing stories about sky-high medical bills on TV. Dr. Merrit Quarum, the chief executive of WellRithms, a health care consulting firm, reviewed the familys medical bills and the responses from their health care providers.

Though Quarum had questions about some of the fees in the itemized bills — $4 for a 600-milligram ibuprofen tablet? $3,125 to place an epidural? — he found the charges were legitimate under the terms of the contract between the hospital and the Canos insurer. Tiffanys only recourse was to set up the five payment plans she navigates each month.

“I wish I could say it wasnt so, but it is,” Quarum said.

Mostly to pay off that health care debt, Robert has taken several part-time gigs this year — he works as a substitute teacher and a nighttime security guard and delivers sandwiches for a fast-food chain in Scottsdale, 40 miles away, where tips are better. He said he sometimes works up to 120 hours in a week.

“Im not ashamed or embarrassed, even as old as I am, to deliver sandwiches,” he said, pulling on his retail chain polo shirt before rushing to a Saturday morning shift.

He continued: “I know people, theyd rather get food stamps and feel sorry for themselves. But Im a fighter. I will not give up. … If I can bring in an extra $400 a week or $800 a month, she can get what she needs for the baby.”

Often getting home after midnight, he keeps shampoo and shaving cream in his car and naps in parking lots between jobs, relying on Red Bull and aspirin to stay alert.

That means on many nights, when Tiffany picks up Brody from day care after her 90-minute commute, she handles most of the chores at home.

“Sometimes I feel like a single mom because my husband is never around,” she said.

She carefully tracks the familys medical expenses, trying to juggle them with ordinary outlays that cant wait — like $500 for the brakes that went out on her car this month.

At the rate theyre going, the bills wont be paid until Brody is 3, Tiffany said. The Canos are getting older and theyd like to have another baby before its too late, but, for now, that seems impossible.

For 2019, the couple have decided to switch to a different plan offered through the regional bank where Tiffany works. The premium is higher — $650 a month — but the deductible is $1,500 with just 10 percent coinsurance.

“It is going to be a lot more per paycheck, which is going to hurt us,” Tiffany said. “But after what just happened, I want to make sure we are prepared in case anything does occur.”

How to fix a health care system that burdens middle-class families so heavily is beyond her, she said.

“The only thing we can do is just keep working,” Tiffany said. “I always wonder: How does everybody else do it?”

Kaiser Health News is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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The organization helping to bring new drugs for rare diseases to market

A research team has reason to celebrate after the Food and Drug Administration granted it approval o..

A research team has reason to celebrate after the Food and Drug Administration granted it approval on Friday to begin a clinical trial for a new pediatric brain cancer drug, one that might have ended up overlooked by pharmaceutical companies.

The lead researcher on the team, Dr. Teresa Purzner has already beat impossible odds. The neurosurgeon and mom of three managed to get the approval in record time and with little money thanks to the help of a team of scientific altruists called SPARK.

The development of new medications in the United States is driven by pharmaceutical companies; researchers at universities rarely bring their discoveries to the bedside. For every 10,000 potential new medicines sitting on laboratory shelves around the country, only one will ever reach patients in need, according to the National Institutes of Health. Why? Because the process can take 10 to 15 years, costing upwards of a billion dollars per drug.

As a result, the number of new medications approved by the FDA has remained stagnant at about 31 per year over the past 10 years. The majority of these medications are similar to already existing ones, and many target diseases for which there are large markets — like hypertension and high cholesterol — and therefore, a return on investment.

Enter SPARK, a non-profit program created in partnership between Stanford University and volunteers from the biotechnology, pharmaceutical, and investment industries, which helps academic researchers bring their discoveries to patients. Since its founding, SPARK has given special consideration to projects typically neglected by pharmaceutical companies, including rare diseases and diseases affecting children.

Purzner put her neurosurgery practice on pause to study medulloblastoma, a type of childhood brain cancer. Compared to diseases like hypertension and high cholesterol, which affect millions of Americans, medulloblastoma is rare, affecting only 250 to 500 children every year.

“Theres something especially poignant about seeing children —beautiful, wonderful, innocent things — and seeing the impact of the therapies we are giving them. The medications, the radiation therapies impact their cognition, their quality of life and their ability to function as independent adults in the future,” Purzner said in an interview with ABC News.

Purzner had a clear goal: to find a targeted therapy that could shut down the basic biochemical pathway responsible for the development of this cancer, and she did. She tested the potential drug in mice with good results, and she just received FDA approval to test it in clinical trials, which she will do through the Pediatric Brain Tumor Consortium. She did it all in five years and for a price tag of $500,000.

“To get from my initial findings in the lab to the point where the Pediatric Brain Tumor Consortium picked it up for clinical trials would have never happened without the help of SPARK… they gave me a clear pathway and made me believe it was possible,” said Purzner.

Every year, SPARK provides 10 teams with funding and expert mentorship to promote efficient and cost-effective drug development. (more…)

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Widowed father works with congresswoman on legislation to prevent maternal deaths

Sitting in the hospital room, mother and newborn baby were sound asleep.

“I was overjoyed. I reme..

Sitting in the hospital room, mother and newborn baby were sound asleep.

"I was overjoyed. I remember thinking my family is complete," Charles Johnson told ABC News.

But then he looked down and saw his wife Kiras catheter turn pink and then red with blood.

April 12, 2016 was supposed to be a joyous day for the Johnson family, but it turned into a "nightmare."

Ten hours later, Kira Johnson died as a result of internal bleeding following a cesarean section.

Now, two years later, Johnson is raising two children on his own and advocating to rectify the country's maternal health policies and regulations to prevent anyone else from sharing the same tragedy. Johnson took to Capitol Hill to share his wife's story before members of Congress, working alongside a congresswoman who experienced her own personal difficulties during pregnancy.

Charles and Kira Johnson welcomed their first son Charles V. in 2014. He was delivered via C-section. Two years later, the Johnson family relocated from Atlanta to Los Angeles and learned they were expecting their second baby boy.

"Kira and I had always wanted two boys," Johnson said. "I was excited."

The Johnsons decided to have Langston delivered at Cedars Sinai medical center, a non-profit hospital that is currently ranked as the eighth best hospital in the country by U.S. News and World Report.

Charles Johnson said his wife was in exceptional health and that she took all the necessary prenatal measures to ensure their second child would be born healthy. Since their first son was born via C-section, the doctor suggested the same for their second. (more…)

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States look to breathalyze convicted drunk drivers to reduce fatalities

This story is from Kaiser Health News

On Jan. 1, California joined the majority of states that ha..

This story is from Kaiser Health News

On Jan. 1, California joined the majority of states that have laws requiring drivers with drunken-driving convictions to install breathalyzers in vehicles they own or operate.

Researchers, public health advocates and political leaders believe these laws are helping reduce alcohol-related road deaths.

The gadgets, known as ignition interlock devices, are mounted on the steering wheel of a vehicle and prevent it from starting if the drivers blood-alcohol reading is above a predetermined level.

In California, the breathalyzers are mandatory only for repeat offenders. Five other states — Georgia, Indiana, Massachusetts, Montana and Ohio — have similar laws. Thirty-two states and D.C. require the devices even for first-time offenders.

The advent of such laws across the United States in the past 15 years has been accompanied by some good news: Deaths involving drunken driving are only about half of what they were in the early 1980s, though they have ticked back up in recent years. The long-term decline is largely attributable to greater public awareness, stricter seat belt enforcement and the establishment in 2000 of a nationwide legal blood-alcohol threshold of 0.08 percent — far below the 0.15 percent standard commonly used before then.

State Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), the author of the California law, said breathalyzers in cars will make roads safer than under the current law, which generally relies on license restrictions and suspensions.

“Weve seen people on a suspended license continue to drive and continue to cause destruction,” said Hill, who lost his best friend to drunken driving in the 1980s.

There is some evidence that the breathalyzers have an impact. Nationally, from 2006 to 2016, ignition-locking breathalyzers prevented 2.3 million attempts to drive by people with a blood-alcohol level at or above 0.08 percent — the legal threshold for driving under the influence — according to a 2017 report by the advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Emma McGinty, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, found that laws requiring interlocks for all DUI offenders were associated with a 7 percent drop in the rate of fatal crashes caused by drunken drivers. Another study found that laws covering all offenders were associated with 15 percent fewer alcohol-related fatalities compared with states that have less stringent laws. (more…)

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