the first time i met susan i was helping to bag up some groceries for her and her two children at a food bank in a small town in montana. there was sleet and ice piling up on the street outside and you could see the ice rime building on the corners of the big front window as a north wind blew straight at us direct from canada. susan asked me if we had any milk left.
it was late in the afternoon and the volunteers had loaded the shelves with food early in the morning but even with a strict allottment of only 1/2 gallon per family, we had run out. i found some dry milk packets that had been overlooked on our boxing and bagging shelves. some of the volunteers who are more experienced at this than me sometimes hide a secret stash for these emergencies and i was grateful to find it for her. susan seemed very tired and a little lost in her thoughts. she was very appreciative, but a little shy, which is not unusual for first time food bank clients. i asked her how far she was traveling and she told me it was a ranch about 40 miles away in a pretty dangerous white out zone. i asked her how the roads are and susan said they were ok this morning but she was worried about the last two mile stretch to the house where a northern wind sometimes can drift families in for days.
i helped her load the groceries in the back of her pickup and she thanked me and i walked inside. i started to turn out the lights and i noticed she was still parked there a few minutes later. i unlocked the door to go outside again to see if something was wrong but i could see the tailpipe was trailing exhaust and the kids seemed ok in their car seats. then i noticed she was slumped slightly over the wheel dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief. we have talked many times since but this time i did not intrude on the private grief of a young widow who seemed to require the privacy of her pickup to finally let go of her stoic courage for just an instant. after a few seconds she jammed the truck into gear and drove off through the storm….it seemed to me to be the very picture of what real courage is all about in this sometimes entirely too nonchalant world.
after a few more visits i got up the courage to break through and i asked her how many head they raised and susan said they once had about 1800, but they had to sell the stock last year to pay the hospital bill for her husband jim, who suffered a cerebral hemorrhage during the hottest part of last summer. one of the hands found jim slumped over in the tractor. they called life flight out of billings and the paramedics got a steady pulse back with all his vital signs looking ok before they reached the hospital. susan was hopeful because jim seemed to be responding to her when she grabbed his hand in the emergency room. they whisked jim away immediately and the surgery lasted 6 hours. jim never regained consciousness and he passed away about a month later after several last ditch expensive attempts to bring him out of his coma failed.
susan’s family had always used aetna, but a friend in the insurance business had recently talked them into switching to a high deductible plan from a well known montana provider to save some money out of their tight budget. their premiums were lowered from 763.97 per month for the four of them down to 698.34. the deductible was 10,000.00 but susan and jim always figured they could come up with that much if they really needed to. the plan was in effect for about 5 months when jim had the stroke.
the day after the funeral in september, bills began to show up in susan’s mailbox from the helicopter flight. denial of payment because a closer hospital ( in plan) was not used. of course, the hospital which jim was flown to had the best reputation for dealing with his problem, so the flight crew chose the better place to bring him. this logic had no effect whatsoever on the decision to deny coverage.
then bills from the (out of plan) hospital arrived unpaid and denied also. seems that the insurance susan and jim had paid almost 700 /month was actually proving to be worthless. well, not quite. there was one doctor which they did approve for the surgery. his bill came to 9756.49 which conveniently just about matches exactly how much susan had to pay as the co-payment on the deductible. virtually everything was denied. a life insurance policy of 150,000.00 barely paid the helicopter and the first surgery bills. susan called the stock auctioneer last october and had him liquidate the herd which paid about half of the rest of the bills. susan hired an attorney to fight the insurance company but the HMO’s attorneys have tied up everything on appeals and she can no longer afford to pay her attorney fees so the case is in limbo until she can come up with another 1800.00 to start the process again. her case is not unusual. she knows that, but with two kids to raise and a ranch to pay for and mounting debts susan was still feeling quite distraught. she has put the ranch up for sale, but the broker told her that the price of land is so depressed right now she would probably not even clear the mortgage much less put a dent in the rest of the bills she owes, including the 67,892.00 balance still owing to the hospital.
susan and jim always paid their bills on time and she still wants to pay everyone she owes. susan is still very proud that way.
to make ends meet now susan is on food stamps and must rely on government ssi checks and occasional food bank visits to survive. the place is lonely and the drive back home is even lonelier. even now, when the summer is hot and most of the place is now leased out to the neighbors to grow alfalfa, susan sometimes wishes she could somehow hang on because jim loved that place so much. it was in his family for 104 years this year, she tells me.
she takes a handful of dirt and crumbles it in her hand. the wind carries the dirt away.she looks up at me with tears welling in that rancher montana tough blue set of eyes and declares….
“it is just so disheartening to do all the right things and be treated this way.”