Your Money or Your Life: When Getting Sick Means Going Broke

By Frosch, Dan | The Nation, February 21, 2005 | Go to article overview

Your Money or Your Life: When Getting Sick Means Going Broke


Frosch, Dan, The Nation


Five long years ago, Rose Shaffer's life seemed sweet. A nurse since the early 1970s, Shaffer had spent most of her sixty years working at various Chicago hospitals, rising through the caregiver ranks and raising three kids. Now in the twilight of her career, she'd been hired as director of nursing at a home health agency in the suburb of Lombard. The position made Shaffer proud--she knew her salary could pay off the mortgage on her house a little sooner. At the time, her cousin Barack Obama was fast becoming a rising star in the Illinois State Senate.

Seven months into her new job, Shaffer suffered a heart attack, and an ambulance rushed her to Advocate South Suburban Hospital. Shaffer assumed she was automatically covered--health insurance was a given at her previous nursing jobs. She thought she'd filled out the proper forms. But she hadn't.

A week later, Shaffer received a bill from Advocate for the three days she'd been hospitalized. It was for $18,000. Shortly thereafter, Advocate began sending letters to Shaffer demanding payment. Then, a summons to appear in court was tossed on her porch. Advocate was suing her.

Shaffer was terrified and didn't show at her court date. She says she even received a letter from the Cook County Sheriff's Department, threatening arrest unless she appeared. Under pressure from Advocate and now behind on her mortgage payments, Shaffer filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy in December 2002, which meant her debtors would garner a reduced portion of the money she owed.

"The hospital saved my life, but now they were trying to kill me," Shaffer says.

Rose Shaffer's experience has become disquietingly common. Since 2000, Harvard associate medical professors Steffie Woolhandler and David Himmelstein, along with Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren and Ohio University sociology and anthropology professor Deborah Thorne, have been compiling data on bankruptcies in the United States. Their study, published on February 2 by the medical policy journal Health Affairs, found that between 1981 and 2001, medical-related bankruptcies increased by 2,200 percent, an astonishing explosion in a relatively short period of time. This spike far outpaced the 360 percent growth in all personal bankruptcies during roughly the same period.

In addition, the study uncovered surprising information about the affected population. While poor, uninsured Americans have long been the most obvious victims of a defective healthcare system, it's the middle class that suffers most in this case, accounting for about 90 percent of all medical bankruptcies, says Warren.

"The people we found to be profoundly affected are not some distant underclass. They're the very heart of the middle class," Warren says. "These are educated Americans with decent jobs, homes and families. But one stumble, and they end up in complete financial collapse, wiped out by medical bills."

With so many middle-class American households potentially vulnerable, you might think politicians would seek a solution sensitive to their interests. Yet the momentum in Washington is in the opposite direction--toward bankruptcy "reform" that would make things worse for people who have been financially ruined by illness.

Until twenty-five years ago, filing for bankruptcy because of debts from a medical problem was virtually unheard of. In 1981, University of Texas law professors conducting bankruptcy research noticed that a handful of the debtors they were studying could never quite pay off their medical bills, but while these bills certainly didn't help, they weren't forcing people into bankruptcy.

Today, by contrast, medical-related debt is the second leading cause of personal bankruptcies, topped only by job loss. Edward Janger, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, gives two reasons for the change: First, there's been a dramatic rise in healthcare costs. In 2002 Americans paid an average of $5,440 in medical expenditures, up $419 from the previous year.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Your Money or Your Life: When Getting Sick Means Going Broke
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.