Imagine that, in addition to weathering the constant stream of crises that have befallen folks over the last two years, circumstances ratchet things up to a level higher than any individual could be expected to bare.
That is what came to mind when I read the story of Sean Deines, whose troubles only started with the loss of his job when the pandemic hit. You may have heard of his story as reported by Kaiser Health News. In November 2020, while visiting his grandfather in a remote part of Wyoming, he started to feel very ill. Deines and his wife drove to a hospital in Casper, which airlifted him to the University of Colorado Hospital near Denver, where he was given a diagnosis: acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a fast-growing blood cancer.
“The couple decided it was prudent to return to their home state of North Carolina, where they could get help from his mother and mother-in-law. They selected Duke University Medical Center in Durham, which was in his insurance network,” writes Kaiser Health News’ Julie Appleby. According to her report, Angel MedFlight (the transport service) told Deines’ wife that “it would accept whatever the couple’s insurer would pay and that they would not be held responsible for any remaining balance.”
Time was of the essence. With what I imagine was a sense of relief, Deines was flown to North Carolina and taken by ambulance to Duke, where he spent the next 28 days.
“By his discharge, he felt better and things were looking up,” Appleby writes. “Then the bills came.”
The grand total for air and ground ambulance services clocked in at $489,000, “most of which was for the flight from Denver, with approximately $70,000 for the ground ambulance service to and from the Denver and Raleigh-Durham airports,” she adds.
How could such a thing happen to an insured patient, you ask? “Insurers generally get to decide what care is ‘medically necessary’ and therefore covered,” says Appleby. “And that is often in the eye of the beholder … Insurers tend not to consider patient stress or family convenience in their decisions. It is also why “both air and ground ambulance services have been center stage in the national fight over huge surprise bills, since the for-profit companies that run them frequently do not participate in insurance networks.”
The Peterson Center on Healthcare and the Kaiser Family Foundation have drawn these conclusions based on the medical debt burdening Americans: “Despite over 90% of the United States population having some form of health insurance, medical debt remains a persistent problem … High deductibles and other forms of cost sharing can contribute to individuals receiving medical bills that they are unable to pay, despite being insured,” according to the Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker.
To better understand how many people have medical debt in this country and how much they owe, they looked at data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation. Their findings suggest people in the United States currently collectively owe at least $195 billion in medical debt.
A Consumer Financial Protection Bureau estimate shows that $88 billion in medical debt is “reflected on Americans’ credit reports, though they acknowledge the total amount of medical debt is likely higher because not all medical debt is visible to consumer reporting companies.”
What this further suggests is that not only are we a mess after two years of a global pandemic but so is the health care system that is essential to help us recover.
Since 2007, the American Psychological Association has been conducting annual “Stress in America” surveys. The APA partnered with The Harris Poll for a poll conducted in February to investigate the impact of stress on individuals throughout the past two years. Then, “in light of recent events leading up to the survey’s release, the survey was supplemented by a late-breaking poll, fielded March 1-3.”
The more recent findings were most alarming. Adding to stressors such as historic inflation, money worries, supply chain issues and general economic stress comes the invasion of Ukraine — a tragedy that is provoking mass fear and anxiety and leaving us feeling more emotionally overwhelmed than ever, according to the latest poll findings.
“These serious stressors are coming at a time when the nation is still struggling to deal with the strain of the prolonged pandemic,” says an APA Press Release. “Close to two-thirds of adults (63%) said their life has been forever changed by the COVID-19 pandemic … More than seven in 10 of those surveyed (73%) said they are overwhelmed by the number of crises facing the world right now,” says the news release.
“In addition, the survey revealed widespread grief and sense of loss, continued hardships for vulnerable populations, concerns for children’s development among parents, and entrenched, unhealthy coping habits … The mental health of children is frequently tied to the overall health, safety, and stability of their surroundings,” they note.
“A year ago, ‘Stress in America One Year Later,’ APA’s first pandemic anniversary survey, found COVID-19-related stress was associated with unhealthy weight gains and increased drinking. These unhealthy behaviors have persisted through the second year of the pandemic, suggesting that coping mechanisms have become entrenched – and mental and physical health is on a continuing decline for many as a result,” the APA reports. “The nation’s confidence and sense of time seem to have diminished as well,” they point out.
There is an even darker side of where we are at as a nation and the costs. As noted in a March editorial in the New York Post, “A deadly scourge killed almost 100,000 Americans in 2020: alcohol.”
“During the first year of the pandemic, per a new report from the National Institutes of Health, 99,017 people died of alcohol-related deaths (including fatalities from accidents and liver disease). 74,408 of the dead were aged 16 to 64 … This comes on the back of also-terrible stats on drug overdoses — which, in a wave driven by opioids and supercharged by fentanyl, killed more than 100,000 Americans in the 12 months ending in April 2021. Those deaths were also highly concentrated among the young.”