Chisholm's Dawn Burnfin heads to D.C. to plead for the lives of her patients

Homecare assistant Dawn Burnfin of Chisholm and her patient, Carol Schultz of Buhl, rely on Medicaid for their household income and life-saving medications.

Homecare assistant Dawn Burnfin of Chisholm and her patient, Carol Schultz of Buhl, rely on Medicaid for their household income and life-saving medications. Dawn Burnfin

Every day, Dawn Burnfin of Chisholm drives 80 miles through the Iron Range to take care of disabled clients who need her help getting around their homes, going to the bathroom, taking their medication, and going to doctor’s appointments.

Burnfin, 43, is a career homecare worker who is paid $12.65 an hour through Medicaid – her family’s sole income.

Born and raised in Missouri, one of 19 states that never adopted Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, she moved to Minnesota after her husband suffered a near-fatal motorcycle accident that required costly surgeries, antibiotics, and ongoing physical therapy that he otherwise wouldn’t have been able to receive.

Her main client, 60-year-old Carol Schultz of Buhl, lost part of her leg after falling down some stairs at home. She is diagnosed with muscular degeneration, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, and degenerative disc disease. A few years ago, Schultz had a bowel infection, and less than a month ago she suffered a heart attack.

These days, as Congress constructs a healthcare bill that will roll back the federal match for Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, Burnfin is fearful that her hours will be reduced, and that her husband will lose coverage for his high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes treatments.

She’s anxious about Schultz, who could lose the nurse that comes once a week to fill her heart medication and check her blood pressure, and about Schultz’s son – also a personal care assistant paid through Medicaid – who could lose his job, along with the family’s means to pay their monthly bills.

“With Carol here, it affects every aspect of her life,” Burnfin says. “She’s afraid she’ll wind up on the streets homeless, or wind up in a nursing home, or she’ll die. And those are very scary options. I mean, if you’re sitting here looking at your life and these are your three options, it’s very scary.”

Amid mounting stress, last week Burnfin traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby her senators against Trumpcare.

“This is just way too important to not say anything. It’s way too important to not do anything,” Burnfin says. “They talk about the health care crisis, and when you have in rural Minnesota a shortage of health care workers, and you have the aging miners especially, you put the two together and then you have this bill, you won’t have a crisis anymore. You have a disaster waiting to happen.”

She had friendly meetings with the aides of Democratic senators Al Franken and Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, and a more frustrating one with Republican Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt’s office. Blunt’s aide would only promise that the senator wouldn't sign a bill he hadn’t read.

It seemed to Burnfin that votes would be cast in accordance with party leadership, rather than the family stories she offered of her husband’s father, who died of untreated heart conditions, and her sister who can’t go to the dentist or get glasses because working a full-time job for $7.50 an hour disqualifies her from Medicaid in Missouri.

Yet just as Burnfin landed back in Minneapolis, she saw on the news that four conservative Republican senators had refused to vote for the bill as written, which would cause 15 million people to lose their insurance next year, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

“And I just said, ‘Thank God,’” Burnfin says. “Like my client Carol said before, if they could just spend a couple weeks living in our shoes, understanding what we have to go through, maybe they would get it.”