By Andy Mannix
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Suddenly the Johnsons, who live in a modest home in Becker, 50 miles northwest of Minneapolis, found their middle-class existence in freefall. Joe turned to Sherburne County for help. "The county said to keep the COBRA payment up," he remembers. But with everything going on, Joe missed the 30-day grace period and failed to scrape the money together. "My wife, she was in the hospital for two weeks. It was a Friday. Holly needed an MRI. I went to pick her up. I brought her home. There was not enough time to make the payment. I called on Monday, but they said it was too late. We lost our health care totally."
Although Holly, who had been adopted, was covered through Medical Assistance, Joe and Joan had no coverage and were facing huge hospital bills. Joan needed weekly chemotherapy treatments, but she decided the family couldn't afford them. "I called my doctor and said I couldn't come anymore," she says. "I couldn't afford $6,000 a treatment." Within two hours of that call, the doctor managed to cut through the bureaucracy and Joan was enrolled in Medical Assistance.
A few months later, the Johnsons received a letter stating that Joan would have to reduce her assets in order to qualify for Medical Assistance. "I had to take my name off our vehicles, our house, our cabin in northern Minnesota, our checking and savings accounts--all our assets," she says. "I have nothing in my name now. My whole life was wiped out at that point."
But the tradeoff was coverage for her cancer treatments, which could add precious time to her life. With chemotherapy, doctors told her, she might have a year to live; without it, more like six months.
"It's hard to describe what you've got to do when someone's sick like that, how quickly you get in a hole, and how hard it is to get out of," says Joe, who has since been able to enroll in MinnesotaCare for his own health needs. "I've worked all my life. I've always carried my own insurance. Now I'm trying to figure out how to keep my house without everything going down the tubes."
Last September, Joe was called back to work, though he's still waiting for a position with benefits. "My co-workers complain about the high premiums," he says. "I just want to say, 'Do you have any idea how much it would cost you if you got sick? What are you complaining about?'"
Making sure the kids are alright
"I was looking through some old notes," Shellene Coleman says while sitting in her living room, surrounded by family photos. "When I was in high school, which was 30-plus years ago, I wrote this thing that when I was 40, I wanted to have 10 kids and live in a big house."
The note was a surprisingly prescient. At 53, Coleman lives in a comfortable home in Lauderdale. When she and her husband, Calvin, got married last August ("We had a big African wedding. It was my dream come true," she reminisces), her already large family almost doubled. Coleman has 10 kids; her husband has nine.
Five of Coleman's children are her own; five are adopted or foster kids. Her mother, she explains, runs a foster home, so Coleman always watched the kids without families who landed there--and she understood how important it was for them to have stable, loving environments.
In such a big family, healthcare costs could easily get out of hand, were it not for Minnesota's state healthcare programs. "All the adopted kids and foster kids are covered by state programs," Coleman says, noting that providing health insurance is an incentive for families to take in needy children who would otherwise remain wards of the state. "If I hadn't had coverage, there's just no way. I can't begin to imagine." She pauses for a moment to relive the near-fatal stroke one of her adopted daughters had just over a year ago. "Her bills were $100,000. I don't know what I would have done."
If these kids weren't eligible for state coverage, the family's home life would be a struggle. "It would be quite difficult because of the cost," Coleman admits. Since the wedding, Coleman herself can be covered through benefits offered by her husband's employer, United Parcel Service, and she's been able to scale back her own job as an administrative assistant at a bank. Now she's able to work only part time, to spend more time with the children. "I'm home in the mornings to see them off to school. It helps with the transition. And I'm off one day from work. It makes it a little easier for them," she says. If the state did not provide health coverage for the kids, Coleman says, "I would have to go back to work full-time. I'd have to, to have insurance."
"They all have some medical issues that needed attention," Coleman says, including prescriptions that total more than $800 a month. She ponders what would happen if the programs were cut or her kids were no longer eligible. "It'd be tight. Very tight," she declares. "We would choose to take away some things, do some things differently."
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