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Posted on August 13, 2019 at 3:06 PM

by Keisha Ray, Ph.D.

Last week there were two news stories about three individuals who died because they could not afford health care. The first is the story of Josh Wilkerson, age 27 who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Wilkerson could no longer afford his normal brand of insulin after aging out of his step-fathers’ private health insurance. Wilkerson’s salary of $16.50 an hour was not enough to cover the $1,200 price tag and with plans to save for a future wedding, Wilkerson switched to an over-the-counter brand of human insulin that is about $25 at Walmart. The human insulin is significantly less effective than the prescription brand Wilkerson was used to taking but because of costs he made the switch. Almost immediately Wilkerson showed signs of mismanaged diabetes, including high blood sugar levels. And while at work his fiancee found him unresponsive. He was transported to the hospital and died 5 days later.

In a second story, a sheriff’s department in Washington shared a story to their Facebook page about Brian Jones, a 77 year old man who called the 9-1-1 dispatcher claiming that he was going to kill himself. When police arrived to the man’s home, they found Jones dead of an apparent gunshot wound alongside his wife, Patricia Whitney-Jones, a 76 year old woman who also appeared to have died from a gunshot wound. The sheriff’s department believes it to be a murder/suicide. At the couple’s home sheriffs found several notes indicating that the couple were troubled about their inability to pay for multiple medical bills stemming from Whitney-Jones’ medical problems. It was also later discovered that the couple filed for bankruptcy in 2016 with a lot of credit card debt, assumed to be from medical expenses.

Both stories are symptoms of a costly American health care system that makes it too expensive to live. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Americans spend more on health care than citizens of any other country. Health care spending is expected to increase because baby boomers will require more medical treatment as they continue to age and health care costs continue to increase. It is estimated that Medicare programs will be the major source of health care funding. But Medicare and private health insurance will also foot a large portion of the bill with each expected to grow by 7.6% and 5.1% respectively between 2020 and 2027.

Art by Craig Klugman

Wilkerson is an example of an individual who experienced the rising costs of health care yet tried to offset health care spending. By some estimates, the costs of insulin has increased by 64% since 2014. Although in 2018 some companies who manufacture insulin promised to decrease prices after a surge of consumer outrage, they instead raised the prices of insulin. This left people like Wilkerson who could not afford private insurance and/or wasn’t offered employer-based health insurance, and aged out of his parent’s health insurance looking for alternatives to maintain their health. But as Wilkerson demonstrates, in many cases looking for alternative health care has deadly results. But it’s hard to blame Wilkerson for trying to find a shortcut. If insulin is very expensive and there are limited ways to afford insulin’s price tag, no matter how necessary it is for the health of some diabetics, some people simply cannot afford the costs and have very few options for getting the medicine they need to survive.

Additionally, wanting to plan and save for a wedding is not an outrageous desire. A wedding may not be a necessity like health but it is an understandable desire that is a part of a fulfilling life for many people. The real tragedy is that Wilkerson should have never been put in a position where he had to choose between living a healthy life and living a life without those life experiences that make a life meaningful and worthwhile. Nonetheless, it seems that even without attempting to save for a future wedding, Wilkerson still would not have been able to afford his life saving insulin and was forced to partake in sub-par care because our health care system has made it too expensive to live a healthy life.

The Jones’ also found it too expensive to live a healthy life. The Jones’ cited their inability to pay for their medical bills as a reason for ending their lives. Hospital costs are a large portion of health care spending. On average it costs about $4,000 per day to stay in the hospital with an average hospital stay costing about $10,000. Additionally, about 60% of all bankruptcies are due to medical expenses. Like Wilkerson, the Jones’ are an example of the costs of our health care systems. The Jones’ were unable to financially pay for health care and as a result paid for it with their lives. But the Jones’ are also an example of the mental and emotional costs of health care. Living with extreme debt can be stressful, induce anxiety, and lower rates of life satisfaction. Potential for suicide can also be a side effect for unmanageable debt. Overall suicide rates have increased between 1999 and 2016. Suicide among people ages 65 and older has also increased in the United States. Because of rising health care costs and health care spending suicide has become symptom of our health care system.

Although Josh Wilkerson and Mr. and Mrs. Jones died in very different ways all three are casualties of a health care system that fails us every day. The cost of medicines, the cost of hospital stays, and the cost of other associated health care resources are killing Americans. The stories of Wilkerson and the Jones’ are just three examples of people who couldn’t afford to be sick in America. It’s troubling to think of the number of people who find it impossible to be sick in America but who don’t make headlines, who struggle every day to afford health care for themselves, their children, their partners, and/or their aging parents. Too many people have to make the tough decision between affording life’s essentials, like health care or engaging in the parts of life that make life joyous simply because health care costs have made it difficult for many people to have both. The American health care system failed Wilkerson and the Jones’ and it is failing so many people that have yet to make headlines.

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