Tracie Cone has always been a trailblazer. This award-winning journalist is the former California Newspaper Executive of the Year. She shares a Pulitzer Prize with fellow staff members at the Miami Herald for coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew and has twice been nominated individually. She has focused her writing on helping the underdog and empowering those without a strong voice of their own. Now she takes us on the fight of her life.
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Being sick with a seemingly good company healthcare plan has left me plenty of time to worry about cancer patients who aren’t as fortunate. For good reason.

My friend Fran sent me a link to a study that says more than 2 million of the estimated 10-12 million cancer survivors in the U.S. did not get one or more follow-up medical treatments (or delayed treatment) because of financial concerns. Either they had lost their jobs and therefore their insurance coverage during their illness, they couldn’t afford their deductible, or they had reached the maximum amount their insurance company would pay for their illness. Of those 2 million, nearly 900,000 could not afford any follow-up care at all.

It bears stating right here that all of the respondents to the survey were younger than age 65 – the age at which they qualify for the government-run healthcare plan called MEDICARE. That’s the plan that got my mom out of a po-dunk hospital in Stuart, Florida that tried to kill her after she had suffered a rare type of heart attack and into the Taj Mahal of hospitals, the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville.

Even more ominous for cancer survivors seeking to stay that way, the study used statistics from 2003-2006 – before the financial meltdown threw more people out of work and caused more employers to scale back their healthcare plans. The numbers are likely higher now.

Naturally, statistics were higher for women and minorities.

Before my treatment began, my doctor estimated that it would cost more than a half million dollars. That’s assuming everything went right, which it hasn’t. I’ve been to the ER and spent most of a week in Stanford Hospital getting all manner of outrageously expensive tests. It also just counts my treatment, not the breast reconstruction surgery I hope to have when this is over. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating, I am so grateful for my healthcare plan, and happy that I’ve been so scared of a catastrophic illness that I paid extra for my company’s premium plan.

That said, I received a notice two weeks ago from our company’s disability insurer that said my job protection had expired. It had been guaranteed for 12 weeks under the federal Family Medical Leave Act.

Is there any cancer that can be treated that quickly?

So now I can only hope that I’ve done a good enough job during my two years with AP that they will have a job for me when I am healthy, and all indications are that will happen. I can’t wait to get back to work.

But what about the others? In July the federal “high-risk pool” took effect. It’s for people who can’t afford insurance because of a pre-existing condition. In 2014, the Obamacare plan will forbid insurance companies from denying coverage to people like me with pre-existing conditions. And next month, according to an article in the AARP magazine, insurers have to cover annual expenses up to $750,000 – and up to $2 million by 2012. By 2014 there will be no limits. Insurance companies will not be able to increase their profits by denying clients the treatment they need to survive.

It’s hard to imagine that these are such gawdawful developments to those who have protested the early (and by far not perfect) legislation to help ensure that no U.S. citizen dies of cancer or anything else because they cannot afford the inflated cost of health care in this country.

To those who have opposed this legislation to force insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions, and to forbid the companies from limiting the amount of life-saving treatment to which we can have access – I invite you to walk in my shoes for a week.

We’ll see then if you feel the same way.

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Copyright 2010 by Tracie Cone. All rights reserved.