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Can't afford to get sick?

Hard times bring moutains to debt to patients

POSTED: November 8, 2008 5:00 a.m.
It's a bad time to get sick. As if home foreclosures and plummeting stocks weren't bad enough, healthcare experts say current trends indicate an inability in patients to pay medical bills, thanks to a struggling economy.
Cash shortages are affecting many people in Liberty County, rendering patients unable to pay healthcare bills and others unable to help or support friends and relatives who need a boost.
Mark Blake, a well-known Hinesville handyman, was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer Aug. 5. His wife and stepdaughter, who already have emptied their wallets and savings accounts to pay for chemotherapy and transportation to Savannah seven days a week for treatment, say they are one step away from financial ruin.
"He's been nothing but a friend to the community and now when he needs help, no one's reaching out to help him," Sarah Blake, Mark Blake's stepdaughter, said.  "It's the stress from money that's going to kill him, not the cancer. And, if he does survive, he's going to be left with nothing."
Mark Blake has been unable to work since August and his growing stack of medical bills has put the Blake family in deepening financial upheaval. Blake can't collect any disability pay until he has been disabled for five months and his relatives' bank accounts are dwindling.
Short on resources, the Blakes reached out to neighbors, The American Cancer Society and other foundations, but even nonprofit aid organizations are short on funds. The Blakes received only a few gas cards to help with travel costs.
"I have less than $70 in my bank account," said Mark Blake's wife, Sonja Blake, who has driven her husband of 25 years to more than 40 consecutive daily radiation appointments in Savannah.
The Blakes aren't alone in their struggle to balance healthcare costs with daily living expenses.
Curtis Jones, a longtime Walthourville resident, faces similar problems. Jones needs a kidney transplant, but he said he is spending all of his money on dialysis treatments needed to sustain him until he can shoulder the surgery expense. Jones said his mountain of medical bills is almost too much to bear.
"You watch your life slip away and it's a scary feeling," said Jones, who is insured but still shells out hundreds each month for routine care.
Although Jones maintains a positive attitude and is determined to stay as healthy as possible through 12 hours a week of dialysis, his health and financial situations remain unstable.
"There are some days that aren't so good. I try to make the best of it," Jones said. "But some days my family is the only thing that saves me. I think if I can just get back home, I'll be OK."
Jones' illness has forced him to put his ministry and many of his hobbies aside until he gets his finances under control. He said he used to enjoy inventing and patenting garden tools, but that's on the back burner for now.
Within one week, both Blake's and Jones' families reached out to the media as a last resort.
Sonja Blake said she's desperate for assistance and feels like she has nowhere left to go. "I can't do it by myself," Blake said.
Given both men's longstanding ties to the Liberty County community, their relatives hope area residents will reach into their hearts and pocketbooks to help. The current economic crisis, however, could stand in the way of would-be supporters who are struggling to pay their own bills.
Rene Harwell, dir-ector of marketing for Liberty Regional Medical Center, said she has recently seen an increase in patients who are un-able to pay their medical bills, but can't say exactly why.
"It would really be speculation on our part to comment on the causes for the inability of people to pay their bills, but we do recognize the obvious effects of the current economic conditions and the related impact for many in our serving area," Harwell said "We believe it is a reflection of the economy in general and the day-to-day choices people must make."
Carie Summers, chief financial officer for the Department of Community Health, said it's normal to see more people struggle to pay for healthcare when the economy dips and unemployment rates are high — a trend evidenced by a recent increase in Medicaid and Peachcare program applications.
"We fully expect the number of people applying for the programs will escalate in the next 18 months," Summers said. "There's about a three-to-six month lag after the unemployment rate drops."
She said she has heard officials are predicting about a 4 percent rise in Medicaid and about a 10 percent rise in Peachcare.
 

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