Monday, October 31, 2016

Hardships of the Financial Kind

My husband and I fought the other night. Not physically of course, but it felt like it when it was over. Money is never an easy topic to talk about when there is not enough of it. It is even more difficult when the main reason for the hardship being brought upon my family is directly related to me. No, I didn’t buy a fancy new car or book a lavish vacation. Our hardship is my medical bills, and the only way to fix it--to put it bluntly--is to quit treatment, let cancer take over and die. I am not ready to do that.

When my husband and I were first married, our wants for our lives were similar: a house, kids, pets, and a future free from financial stress. Along the way, there were a few set-backs in his career, but we knew we could recover from those things, eventually. I patiently waited for the day when I could spend $200.00 at the grocery store without thinking and worrying about it all the way home. It finally happened but only briefly. Eleven years ago we were first hit with the financial trauma created because of my disease. The third time ripped away any fantasy we had of ever recovering. Medical bills from the past and present arriving in our mailbox are a real threat to our current way of life.

We have employee provided insurance and so far it has never denied a claim. Since many participants in this insurance plan are able to pay their premiums—at least I assume--there has been enough money to allow me to continue receiving treatments. For that I am grateful, extremely. But presently, our 10,000 dollar a year deductible arrives too quickly and our bills are beginning to overwhelm us.

My treatment center believes my husband makes too much money therefore won’t consider lowering our payments. The first time a payment was submitted below the minimum required, the call came threatening to send our account over to collections. We are not looking to not pay our bills. They are OUR bills. But, a lowering of them would help reduce our stress from this monthly financial burden.

Because I didn’t pursue a career, instead opting to stay home and raise our children, my income earning potential is low offering little to no relief from the enormous, ever-increasing debt looming over us. I simply have no way to generate enough income for us to recover. Adding to this conundrum, I have fears of starting a job and then having to quit because of side-effects or the worsening of my disease.

I often try to make myself feel better about the situation saying, “I would rather be poor than dead.” It is a true statement, but financial struggles can suck happiness out of you almost as much as the cancer can. There is another saying I often think about: if you don’t have your health, you have nothing. Never has a statement been truer and is relevant no matter what your income level.

After I was diagnosed stage IV, I questioned why I chased the dream of a big house with some land. As a young person I found there to be something marvelous about a spacious house with large windows spilling sunshine throughout its rooms, crown mouldings adding those finishing touches to at least some of those rooms, a whirlpool bathtub in the master bath with an adjacent tiled shower, a wrap-around-porch, and double-stacked ovens with two sinks in the kitchen. At that time to have those things seemed to be a grand accomplishment. Surely having them would make life better. I never considered I might one day become too sick or too old to take care of it.

Although I didn’t obtain the huge house nor those grandiose household items, I did obtain a house. A house with a front and back porch, one oven that works now intermittently, one kitchen sink and no whirlpool bathtub. The crown moulding was never considered since the added cost was deemed unnecessary and those super large Anderson windows found in the pages of the housing magazines of which I gazed, never brought the sun into my home.

I wanted nice expensive furniture. We did manage to buy a nice couch and bed many years ago. The bed remains nice, but the couch is falling apart. Other items in my home are either hand-me-downs or cheap crap I bought in my twenties. Our books are held by Walmart bookshelves which I am thankful to have since what is life without books? Instead of a home filled with expensive d├ęcor, we filled it with four kids and a variety of pets; a decision I never will regret.

Often, our house didn’t feel big enough with so many people living in it. The closet space is inadequate and the upstairs bathroom shared by three of our children is ridiculously small. Today, with the kids beginning to find their place elsewhere in the world, it is starting to feel bigger.

The carpet upstairs is the same carpet that was first installed 16 years ago--carpet really shouldn’t be around that long. The paint on our walls is dull and dirty. It too is old. The shutters on our outside windows are faded, and the screen on the back porch is either missing or needs replacing. With all of its flaws, it provides us protection from the weather. I do so hate being cold. Please don't take my complaining to mean I am not thankful to have it cause I am.

As you may know or can imagine, any conversation that involves not enough income to cover the bills can leave a person feeling helpless, afraid, and without solutions to fix the problem, lost. I have searched on-line and there are no organizations that I have discovered offering help to people with high medical costs who have an income above a certain level of which we fall.

As is always the case when debt accumulates, the rich can pay, the poor get help, but the middle continue to struggle leaving them thinking their only option will eventually be bankruptcy if that is even a possibility. We prefer not to do that. We take pride in our ability to work and pay for what is our responsibility. Unfortunately, it does appear our situation is slowly becoming more than we can handle.

As sad as the idea seems, I can't help but wonder if the time has come to consider a smaller place. Should we consider selling our house and moving? While selling our home might seem like it would give us the money needed to pay my medical costs, there would still be a monthly payment for housing of some kind so in the end, would it help? And, though my material desires have lessened immensely, my husband would suffer, something I do not want. Our home is more than the money it took to build it or a desire to have a nice place to live. Keeping it or not keeping it is not just about me. There is another person, my husband. Separating himself from it would not be easy.

The construction of our house began in 1999. Since my husband and his father participated in its construction, it has great personal value attached to it. His literal blood, sweat, and even tears went into its creation. The frustration of working with the difficult personality of his dad has been thrust upon every nail driven by him into the wood that keeps it standing.

Before the framing began, he worked every weekend cutting, chopping, and carving out a place on that wooded property for us to raise our kids. It was to be our special place on this earth for us to share, to enjoy our lives, to grow old.

He continues to tame it when hurricanes named Matthew blow winds strong enough to uproot the trees that were planted 10 years ago and had reached a height of 30 feet or more and now must be cleared away. He dug holes in dirt so hard one summer it was more like concrete than soil. In each hole he placed fence posts eventually surrounding the house keeping our children, our dogs and our goats safe. There is also a chicken coup behind our house that he built during a chicken hatching project the kids and I did. Those particular chickens are no longer living, but others have taken their place and provide us with fresh eggs almost daily. In the back of the property, we buried beloved pets. My border collie who I trained for five years in agility winning several blue ribbons will be joining those pets in the near future as his health continues to decline.

In this house we watched our three and four year old children turn into adults. We carried our last child from the hospital into this house to begin her life. It is the only one she has ever known. This land this house sits on is not just a small spot on an enormous planet to my husband. His now ailing father and his mother gave it to him, separating this tract of land from their farm where cows continue to grow on their fields of grass. His father has a fantasy too: the land is to stay within the family, always. All of these reasons are why my husband cannot bring himself to consider the possibility of leaving it.

I look at this house as the place I cry in, love in and laugh in. It is home. I walk out onto the front porch and feel the cool breeze blowing from the north and love the fact I cannot see my neighbors because of the trees surrounding me. I love that our animals have a large fenced yard of which to roam and explore. I love when I walk out on the back porch I get to enjoy my plants growing in their pots while listening to the roosters crowing and the hens squawking loudly. The voices of our goats take note and begin talking to me, asking me to bring them food scraps from our leftover food in our fridge. I remember our past; the birthday parties held here; his sister and my sisters, sitting here in the rocking chairs conversing and laughing. I know how hard we both worked to make this place a home, how we still do.

As time moves along, our inability to pay our medical debt may end with our losing our home. If we cannot pay, the hospital will have no choice but to take action against us taking the only thing that we have of financial value. It saddens me greatly as it represents another kind of acceptance that I must face; one that everyone must face: change happens; nothing ever stays the same; in the end, we must let go of the things we love.

Our conversations concerning money are weighted with too much emotion allowing angry words to seep in. We both see the situation in different ways. Being financially strapped makes a house seem less important to me especially since I am thinking about the end of my life and focusing on what I need to do before it ends. He on the other hand sees his life extending into his eighties. He could spend those many years in this house; this house, our home, the one with so many memories attached, memories inside and outside the walls that hold it together.

So, here we are, facing the very real aspect of what increasing medical debt can do to a family and not knowing what to do about it. The hospital financial counselors where I receive treatment are following their guidelines concerning who can receive help and who cannot. I have no idea how high our debt-to-income ratio must get before they deem it necessary to reduce our monthly payment due. We have provided all our information but have yet to see any relief.

No matter the reasons, when people don’t pay their bills, hospital costs increase along with insurance premiums. The burden of those costs will always be on those people who have the means to pay. It doesn't seem right, but it is the way it is. I don’t have a solution of how to give relief to families like mine who have medical bills beyond their ability to pay. No one who lives with a terminal or even a chronic illness for any length of time that does not earn a great deal of money can avoid the financial impact of it.

For those of us who are middle income earners, bankruptcy may be the only relief we can find so we can keep our home. It does not feel good to me because bankruptcy also takes money from people in the form of higher interest rates on the loans they receive from banks. Like everything surrounding cancer, choices are few. The only choice we may have will be to file bankruptcy. For now, I am an unwilling participant knowing my death is the only thing that will bring any of it to an end. 

4 comments:

  1. I am so sorry about this. Such a terrible position to be in. I wish I had answers.

    Cathy S.

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    1. Thanks, Cathy. It is yet another issue in my world of living with this disease.

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  2. So much of what you've shared here sounds familiar in that we struggled and sacrificed to build our home on a few acres, doing without the standard luxuries like heat and a/c, carpets and interior walls or a stove during the early times. The differences you face make me realize what a blessing it is to have our health. May God bless you and your family as they face these hard times and I will keep you in my prayers.

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    1. Thank you, Peg. Wow, you really did do without--no heat, oh my. I hope you didn't suffer through a winter keeping logs on a fire to keep you warm or to cook your food. In the end though, what a memory! I hope for your continued good health. It makes all the difference as you know.

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