My sister called me around midnight, sobbing. Her only words were “Come quick.” I ran downstairs to the basement she and her fiance rent from me, fearing the worst. She was on the couch, curled in the fetal position. Her body wracked with spasms, face pale and sweaty, and she moaned as waves of pain overtook her.
We spent the next few hours coaxing old prescription pain meds into her. Her fiancé got advice from his mother a state away, who is thankfully a nurse. She recommended that we take my sister to the emergency room if the stomach pain didn’t go away soon.
My sister alternated between begging to go to the ER and having anxiety attacks about potentially going to the ER.
“How will I afford it if they find something wrong?” she cried. “I’ll lose my job if I have to miss more time”.
This is what it’s like being a financially insecure American in 2021.
In America, one piece of bad luck can push nearly anyone into poverty — particularly for millennials and other young adults.
As a country, we spend so much time and energy focused on making sure that every person “earns” their place in society, earns a handout given. Our cultural ethos of personal responsibility is a noose around every person’s throat without a fat banking account — one misstep leading to a long drop with a sudden stop.
“Thank god you have a job,” I told my sobbing sister as I rubbed what I hoped was soothing circles on her back as another wave overtook her. “You have a good job now with insurance and benefits”.
Just three months prior, she had been let go from her sales job after failing to make quota — the pandemic had reduced the number of people buying tires. Within an instant, her salary and health insurance disappeared.
Nearly half of American’s had employer-sponsored health insurance in 2019, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Without the job, the health insurance goes away, leaving people like my sister to pay out-of-pocket for birth control, see a doctor, or say, go to the hospital if they get sick — in a pandemic.
For comparison’s sake, I have three monthly prescriptions, each costing me between $10 and $30. Sums so little, I barely notice them. Without insurance, those medications would cost me nearly $1000 in total — hilarious. This encourages me to keep a stockpile, just in case. I’m still working my way through migraine meds from 2012.
In the week in between jobs, we looked at health insurance in the marketplace while laughing hysterically — $451 a month with a $5000 deductible. She had nearly a month of her contraception left and wasn’t going to worry about getting insurance.
“If I get hit by a car, hopefully, it kills me”, she jested…probably.
According to the latest estimate in August by the Economic Policy Institute, as many as 12 million Americans have lost their health coverage due to pandemic inspired layoffs.
A few years ago, her best friend Courtni achieved her dream job — working at Disney World as a Disney princess. She also worked at Orlando Studios as a costume designer. She had spent a decade working her way up at Disney and Orlando to earn those jobs. She had it made until the pandemic hit. She and most of her colleagues were unceremoniously fired.
In lieu of any other real options, she used her sewing skills to start a facemask company. She also sold plasma twice a week to make some income, but the $50 a session not going far. Her experience was irrelevant for any other jobs in the area, especially as tens of thousands of her fired coworkers vied for jobs in the same tourist towns that just lost most of their tourism income.
A few days ago, I was given a status update.
“Bad news, Courtni got the ‘rona.”
“Is she ok?” I asked as my sister shrugged.
“She is not doing good, but she can’t go to the hospital.”
“Does she have insurance?” A harsh laugh was my response. None other was required. The cost of insurance would be far more than her total monthly income.
“You know the worst part? She can’t sell more plasma until she’s fully healed.”
This is what it’s like being financially insecure in America. The concern of contracting a deadly illness is outweighed by the inability to sell your blood to help with rent.
If she requires a hospital stay, she will fall even further.
According to FAIR Health, a Covid patient requiring a hospital stay WITH insurance is billed an average of $38,221. While that number goes up to between $50-$80k for those without insurance.
My sister went to the ER around four am. She was given two full shots of morphine, a diagnosis of gallstones, and a recommendation to get her gallbladder removed ASAP.
Her company is understanding, and her deductible is one that we can afford. She can relax for the moment in the knowledge that her life won’t be ruined by a health event beyond her control.
Today at least.
But this is what it’s like being a financially insecure American today.
Afraid, not of surgery, not of excruciating pain, but of financial ruin.
It’s, sadly, an incredibly rational and reasonable fear.