The Life and Death Reality of the Uninsured
Release Date: 04/08/2009

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The following is an Op-Ed written by Beth Llewellyn, Vice President Mission Integration, Alegent Health

The recession is costing taxpayers billions of dollars in lost investments, bailouts and foreclosures. But it is the human toll that is most concerning. On any given day some 14,000 Americans also lose their health insurance and with it the security of health care.

Warren Hastings, an Omaha mechanic, is one of those people. Working without health insurance, Warren faced what felt like an impossible dilemma. He needed heart surgery but couldn’t afford it. Yet without it, he almost certainly would die.

His story began eight years ago when Hastings’ family found itself challenged by two serious medical issues. Warren, then 52, learned he needed triple bypass surgery and an internal defibrillator to keep his heart beating. This as his wife battled breast cancer.  They were fortunate, in a way - they had health insurance through his wife’s employer. But when the bills started pouring in, they realized their six-figure share of the debt would force them into bankruptcy – just as healthcare crises cause half of all family bankruptcies in America today. Still, the journey in front of them was even more difficult – ending four years later when Warren’s beloved wife passed away.

Now alone, Warren faced another new reality: he no longer had insurance coverage through his wife’s employer, but he couldn’t get his own because of his heart condition. The small business for which he worked couldn’t cover anyone if Warren was on the policy, which goes against the very principle of insurance – sharing the risk. After exhausting other options, Warren looked into the state’s insurance program. Unfortunately, the $800-a-month premium was more than Warren could afford so, with no other alternatives, he had to go without health insurance and take his chances.  

Last December, Warren wasn’t feeling well and went back to see his trusted cardiologist, Kent Gleed, M.D. The news wasn’t good; he needed to have his defibrillator replaced. Warren knew he couldn’t afford it and couldn’t live without it.  Dr. Gleed, an electro-physiologist with Alegent Health’s Heart and Vascular Institute, refused to let money stand in the way of his patient’s life. So he convinced the defibrillator maker to donate a new unit and Alegent Health covered the cost of Warren’s hospital care. 

Thanks to a physician who fought for his uninsured patient and Alegent Health, which true to its healing Mission, put its patient at the center of our care without regard for payment, Warren is now doing well. He is one of more than 30,000 uninsured, underinsured or poor patients cared for by Alegent Health last year at a cost of $52.2 million. The cost of that care is projected to top more than $65 million next year. Yet it is those patients that propel us into the local and national discussion on health reform. We will not realize the hope for a healthier nation at an affordable cost if our health care system does not assure access for the uninsured and orient our focus from sick care to wellness and preventive care. Town halls like the one tonight marking the “Week of the Uninsured” raise awareness for more than 86 million Americans for whom healthcare is a luxury not a necessity.

They are the faces of the healthcare crisis in America – faces that we cannot afford to lose sight of - because sometimes, it really is a matter of life and death. Just ask Warren.