Susan Finley returned to her job at a Walmart retail store in Grand Junction, Colorado, after having to call in sick because she was recovering from pneumonia.
The day she returned, the 53-year-old received her 10-year associate award — and was simultaneously laid off, her family said.
She had taken off one day beyond what is permitted by Walmart’s attendance policy.
Illustration: Louise Ting
After losing her job in May 2016, Finley also lost her health insurance coverage and struggled to find a new job. Three months later, Finley was found dead in her apartment after avoiding going to see a doctor for flu-like symptoms.
“My grandparents went by to check on her and they couldn’t get into her apartment,” her son, Cameron Finley, told the Guardian. “They got the landlord to open it up, went in and found she had passed away. It came as a complete surprise to everybody. It just came out of nowhere.”
“She was barely scraping by and trying not to get evicted. She gets what appears to her as a basic cold or flu, didn’t go to the doctor and risk spending money she didn’t have, and as a consequence she passed away,” he said.
Asked about Susan Finley losing her job, Walmart declined to comment, saying that personnel files from 2016 had been moved offsite.
Finley is one of millions of Americans who avoid medical treatment due to the costs every year.
In a poll conducted last month by Gallup, 25 percent of respondents said that they or a family member have delayed medical treatment for a serious illness due to the costs of care, and an additional 8 percent reported delaying medical treatment for less serious illnesses.
A study conducted by the American Cancer Society in May last year found that 56 percent of adults in the US have had at least one medical financial hardship.
Researchers warned that the problem is likely to worsen unless action is taken.
Robin Yabroff, lead author of the American Cancer Society study, said last month’s Gallup poll was “consistent with numerous other studies documenting that many in the United States have trouble paying medical bills.”
Despite millions of Americans delaying medical treatment due to the costs, the US still spends the most on healthcare of any developed nation, while covering fewer people and achieving worse overall health outcomes.
A 2017 analysis found that the US ranks 24th globally in achieving health goals set by the UN.
In 2018, US$3.65 trillion was spent on healthcare in the US, and these costs are projected to grow at an annual rate of 5.5 percent over the next decade.
High healthcare costs are causing Americans to get sicker from delaying, avoiding, or stopping medical treatment.
Anamaria Markle, of Port Murray, New Jersey, was diagnosed with stage-three ovarian cancer in 2017. A clerk for nearly 20 years at the same firm, her family said that her employer laid her off after the diagnosis, with one year’s severance and health insurance coverage.
When the insurance coverage ended, Markle struggled to pay for coverage through COBRA, a federal health insurance program for people who lose their job or have a reduction in work hours; additional expenses; copays, an out-of-pocket, upfront fee for a medical service; and medical debt not covered by insurance.
Laura Valderrama, Markle’s daughter, said: “It wasn’t financially sustainable to keep paying COBRA out of pocket. On top of the premiums, you still have to pay the bills. We kept getting lots of bills for surgeries, chemotherapy… All these treatments, all these bills kept coming in.”
Markle decided to stop receiving medical treatment due to the rising costs and debt, and died in September 2018 at age 52.
“My mom was constantly doing the math of treatment costs while she was on the decline,” Valderrama said. “I really miss my mom. She shouldn’t have had to make the decision to stop her treatment based on financial costs.”
A 2009 study conducted by researchers at Harvard Medical School found that 45,000 Americans die every year as a direct result of not having any health insurance coverage.
In 2018, 27.8 million Americans went without any health insurance for the entire year.
One of those Americans was Ashley Hudson’s father, who died in 2002 due to an untreated liver disease, which went undiagnosed until a few weeks before his death. It was only discovered when he went to an emergency room because he was unable to afford to see a doctor due to lack of insurance coverage and inability to afford treatment out of pocket.
Now Hudson’s mother, Sue Olvera, who works at McDonald’s and has no insurance coverage, is facing similar cost barriers while struggling with kidney issues and type-2 diabetes.
The family is trying to raise money via GoFundMe to help cover the costs of Olvera’s surgery to remove kidney stones earlier this year, which Olvera expected to be covered under a charity program, but was denied and is now stuck with more than US$40,000 in medical debt.
Healthcare is one of the most contentious issues surrounding this year’s US presidential election, as Democratic candidates battle over policies to expand healthcare access and lower costs, from US Senator Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare for All” plan that would create a government funded healthcare system providing universal coverage to all Americans, while eliminating surprise medical bills, deductibles and copays, to healthcare plans that focus on creating a public option under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
As Democrats debate solutions to the US’ healthcare crisis, the administration of US President Donald Trump has been delaying any plans for repealing the act passed under former US president Barack Obama until after the election.
Several people the Guardian interviewed have been avoiding medical treatment for serious illnesses or struggling to treat illnesses worsened by delaying medical care due to costs.
Substitute teacher Gretchen Hess-Miller, 48, of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, was diagnosed with oral cancer in 2009 while pregnant. She has had surgery to remove the cancer, but is supposed to receive annual scans to monitor the cancer, but has not had one in four to five years because her family cannot afford it.
“My doctor told me this is an aggressive form of cancer that will come back someday and I need to stay on top of it, but the deductible and the difficulty with dealing with the insurance keeps me from having it done,” Hess-Miller said.
Her insurance coverage requires a US$5,000 deductible, she said, adding that she has previously had to fight to receive coverage, because medical care is constantly denied as insurance classifies oral care as dental rather than medical care.
“I have kids. I worry about our future. I want to be here for them,” Hess-Miller said. “We’re very thankful to have insurance at all, but families should not have to compromise on if I’m going to pay for my kid’s college or pay for a test to see if I have cancer. People shouldn’t be put in a position to make choices like that.”
Amy Keeling, 51, a paralegal in New Hampton, Iowa, avoided seeing a doctor for more than a year due to her partner’s surgery costs in 2018 for triple bypass surgery.
“I hadn’t felt good for a while, but I just thought it was my age. In September 2019, I got the flu and ended up in the emergency room because I couldn’t breathe,” Keeling said.
She was diagnosed with Grave’s disease, an autoimmune disorder.
“If I had been going in to the doctor and checking on this a lot sooner, we may have been able to do other alternatives and get a handle on this before it got this serious. I’m at the point where medication won’t control it and my only option is surgery,” Keeling said.
Her insurance requires a US$5,000 deductible. Having met it last year, she scrambled to have her surgery scheduled before this year, when it would reset.
Meanwhile, her partner is looking to file for bankruptcy, because he has about US$40,000 in medical debt.
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