Stories from the front lines of the healthcare reform debate

by Keith Barber

Stories from the front lines of the healthcare reform debate

Three women waited in line at Crisis Control Ministry’s in-house pharmacy at 200 E. 10 th St. in Winston-Salem on Monday morning. Each had a different story to tell about their struggle to afford quality healthcare. All three women declined to give their full names for privacy reasons. They confirmed they sought help from Crisis Control because they don’t have health insurance. J. Walker said she was laid off from her job from a Sheetz gas station/convenience store on July 13. As a result, she lost her health insurance coverage. Walker, 61, said she has applied for Social Security after being laid off and was recently notified her benefits would begin on Dec. 16. In the meantime, Walker said her visit to Crisis Control Ministry marked the first time in five years she had requested assistance from the nonprofit. Crisis Control has the distinction of having the first licensed free pharmacy in North Carolina, and the largest free pharmacy in Forsyth County. Last year, Crisis Control filled more than 26,000 prescriptions, valued at over $2.1 million, according to Executive Director Margaret Elliott. On Monday, Walker had seven prescriptions filled at the nonprofit’s free pharmacy. Walker said she takes four medications for high blood pressure, one medication for her type II diabetes, one medication for her depression, and one medication for her high cholesterol. If not for Crisis Control’s free pharmacy, Walker said she doesn’t know what she would do. “I would probably wind up in the hospital,” she said. “I have type II diabetes, but through crisis control, they said they would contact the pharmaceutical companies and they might be able to help. To be an individual to have to make all those calls to the pharmaceutical companies would be very hard, so Crisis Control is a huge help.” Cynthia Fearrington, Crisis Control’s director of client services, said the nonprofit works with pharmaceutical companies to obtain free medicines in 90-day doses. Mary Talton, a Crisis Control staff member, is tasked with requesting free medicines from pharmaceutical companies. Fearrington said the agency has seen a tremendous surge in both one-time-only requests for medication and pharmacy certification requests. Pharmacy certification requests are “for people that nothing is going to change in the next six months — folks applying for disability with chronic health problems,” she said. “We’ve experienced a 50-percent increase in certified clients from June 2008 to June 2009, and it’s the same for onetime requests,” Fearrington said. “We’re seeing a lot of people whose unemployment insurance has run out.” Winston-Salem’s unemployment stood at 10.4 percent in June, slightly less than the state average of 11 percent, according to the US Department of Labor. Walker said she believes landing a goodpaying job is the best way out of her current predicament. She plans on enrolling in courses at Goodwill Industries of Northwest North Carolina to work toward becoming a certified nursing assistant. Eventually, Walker plans on becoming a phlebotomy technician. “I’m in a transition period,” she said. “I want to go into the medical field because that seems to be what is in demand these days. What I’m hoping is after I complete my nurse’s aid course, I’ll begin looking for work as a nurse’s aid, and continue my study of phlebotomy which will give me an extra income.” The mission of Crisis Control is to help people experiencing temporary setbacks meet essential life needs and eventually become self-sufficient. But in light of the current economy, the agency has had to relax its rules somewhat, Fearrington said. “There’s a difference in a first-time person

who comes here who hada good-paying job and they just lost their unemployment,” Fearringtonsaid. “We don’t hold them as accountable for having a plan as we usedto because with the economy we realize they can’t always have a plan.”For those clients who come in simply for pharmaceutical assistance,Crisis Control has a different set of rules. “Pharmacy hasalways been different because it’s for people who can’t have anotherplan,” Fearrington said. “They need medicine and they will die withoutit.” C. Ward arrived at Crisis Control on Monday morning needing to getfour prescriptions filled. One of her prescriptions was an antibioticto treat an abscessed tooth. She said the pain of theinfection grew so intense that she wound up in the emergency room atBaptist Hospital on Sunday. The emergency room visit represented Ward’sthird trip to the hospital in the past two months. Ward, who also hastype II diabetes, was treated at Forsyth Memorial Hospital two weeksago when her blood sugar “bottomed out.” Ward said she stopped takingher diabetes medication when she lost her health insurance last year.Ward said she was covered under her ex-husband’s employer’s healthplan, but when she and her husband split up, she lost her coverage.Ward said she is getting her diabetes treated at Community Care Center,a free medical and dental clinic on New Walkertown Road. However,she’ll have to wait two to three months before she can have her badtooth pulled. For the past year, Ward said she was just barely getting by — not going for routine check-ups and not taking her medication. Butin June, she suffered a serious bout with depression and had to checkherself into Forsyth Memorial Hospital. Ward said she’s doing a lotbetter now because of the free medications she’s receiving from CrisisControl. “I’ve applied for disability because my depressiongot so bad I couldn’t work; I couldn’t deal with everyday stress,” shesaid. “Since then, I haven’t been taking my diabetes medicine.” Wardsaid her short-term goal is to improve her health so she can back toschool and get back in the workforce. Ward, who worked as a medicaltechnician in an assisted living facility for 15 years, said she wouldlike to gain her certification in medical office technology and work ina doctor’s office. On the matter of healthcare reform, Ward said she thinks the process of applying for emergency assistance, like Medicaid, should

‘Pharmacyhas always been different because it’s for people who can’t haveanother plan. They need medicine and they will die without it.’ — Cynthia Fearrington, director of client services for Crisis Control be streamlined. Ward also said people with preexisting conditions should not be penalized by health insurance companies. “Ithink they need to figure out a way to make it affordable, and notnecessarily through an employer,” she said. “I’m not sure if I agreewith national healthcare coverage, but they should make it so everyonecould qualify. There has to be a better way to do it.” Fearringtonagrees that healthcare reform is necessary. The real challenge isfiguring out what healthcare reform should look like, she said. Thelarge groups of individuals who are being neglected by the currentsystem are those who have applied for disability and have no income,Fearrington said. “These people have no means to pay any bills, muchless for prescription drugs,” she added. A growing segment ofpeople who seek assistance from Crisis Control’s free pharmacy arethose who are working full-time but their employers don’t providehealthcare insurance and they don’t earn enough to purchase insuranceon their own, Fearrington said. Then there are seniors on Medicare whofall into the “donut hole.” Tina Adkins, assistant director ofclientservices for Crisis Control, said 25 to 30 percent of her clientscannot afford to meet the Medicare deductible that can be upwards of$4,500. “There’s been an increase in people who are workingand are just barely making ends meet,” Adkins said. “Some clients’employers provide insurance but they can’t afford their contribution.” M.Branch also waited in line at Crisis Control’s free pharmacy on Monday.Branch, 38, said she lost her health care coverage when her employerdecreased her hours from full-time to part-time. She got twoprescriptions filled for a preexisting condition. “Hopefully,it’s just a one-time thing,” Branch said. Branch said she is currentlyapplying for a number of full-time positions and remains hopeful thathealth insurance will come with a new job. With respect to thehealthcare reform debate, Branch said she believes that affordablehealth insurance should be a fundamental right, especially for thosewho have lost their jobs in the current recession. Fearrington said Crisis Control represents the front lines of the healthcare and unemployment crisis in Forsyth County. “Ifyou think we don’t have an economic problem, come [to Crisis Control],”Fearrington said. “We’re a great reflection of it.” With so manydifferent models of a federally-backed health care plan that covers allcitizens, Fearrington said there has to be some provision made forthose who are out of work through no fault of their own, and doingtheir best to get back on their feet. After all, the resources ofCrisis Control and other social service agencies are being pushed tothe limit. “Right now, we are the safety net,” she said.

The Obama administration has launched a public campaign to spread its message on healthcare reform in the face of significant reaction from conservative activists. (courtesy image)