by problembear

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.”


  1. Oh my, pb. Your story made me cry.

    America is not the greatest if we allow this to happen…if we allow it to continue.

    Anyone who thinks otherwise is utter denial.

  2. Rimrock


    Ordinarily, you don’t ask ranchers how many cattle they have, or farmers, how many acres they farm.

    An 1800 head ranch, though, it “ain’t no party, ain’t no disco, ain’t no foolin’ around…”

    And to have it come to ruin, due to something like this…?

    Words can’t do it justice, although you’ve come real close, PB.

  3. Lizard

    thank you, pb.

  4. Big Swede

    Somethings amiss.

    You own a ranch that was gotten thru inheritance, but still had a mortgage.

    The ranch is large enough to support 1800 head.

    And yet no life insurance, accident insurance, mortgage life policy or otherwise?

    • Let’s explain this for you, Big Swede. The story is repeated over and over in this state.

      Your parents own a big ranch. You live on the ranch too – you work the ranch with them. You got 3 siblings. They’ve gone to school, got other jobs, bought their houses. Some have moved to the big cities – Bozeman or Billings or Missoula.

      Your parents want to retire. Or one of them dies and the surviving parent realizes that maybe its time to take that long vacation that they’ve been talking about for 60 years.

      Despite the fact that you’ve never left your parents homestead, and you’ve gotten up at 5 a.m. and broken the ice off the water and saddled up the horses and rounded up those cows that have pushed up on the fences down by the neighbor’s place, the rest of ’em want their share. Parents want to be fair, too.

      Siblings, though, don’t want anything to do with the ranch. Doesn’t make sense to say that they’ll take their cut some later time – that time could never come if you are going to live there like the ‘rents.

      So what they decide to do is to either sell the ranch outright, or figure out what it’s worth, and sell it to you at at that price, minus your proportional share.

      You like that idea. You like the ranch – and besides that, parents get to stay in their home until whenever they chose. Same with you – you keep the home that you’ve called home all your life. So you head to the bank, draw up those mortgage papers and hand the buy-out payments over to your siblings.

      Ranch is yours, along with its mortgage.

      As to your last question? How many ranchers do you know that have lotsa extra cash around? Most I know spend that cash on making sure they’ve got reliable vehicles and machines, plenty of hay and feed, and food on the table.

      You’re pushing more crack (more insurance policies) after reading the laundry list of denials there?

      Get up off that chair and get some blood moving to that brain you appear to be sitting on.

      • goof houlihan

        Good story jh. Demonstrates why the death tax is a bad idea too. Also, it’s a damn good argument for open space bond issues. Sell the development rights to the public, pay the siblings, and keep ranching.

        Nobody has “lots of cash laying around”. But many people stick it out with an older car, a smaller rent or house payment, with generic corn flakes for breakfast, so they can pay for or keep that good health insurance.

        • goof houlihan

          Oh, and that life insurance payment is a big deal as well. Don’t skimp on that.

      • Big Swede

        Don’t tell me about owning farms and ranches with relatives. I bought into my first farm/ranch property in 1981. I’ve owned ranches in three different MT counties.

        Even when I was a part owner and my family was young, I knew enough to buy mortgage insurance or life insurance to pay off obligations upon my untimely death.

        What’s a 250k term life premium? 75 bucks a month?

        • I tell you that story because it plays out in other issues as well – which is what goof alludes to with his pitch for open space.

          You asked. I answered.

          As for the rest? Still pushing that crack despite the litany of denials pb put out there, telling susan’s story.

          What are you? An insurance salesman?

          • Big Swede

            Lookit, I’m not excited about having to pay insurance, lord knows I pay thousands.

            But I do know that insurance is most important when younger, when you’re building assets, when your family most needs it.

            Susan paid 700 a month for health ins, she should have paid 10 to 20% additional to cover the worst possible outcome.

          • She paid $700 for jack shit. They denied her claims.

            You are suggesting that she should have insurance to insure her health insurance policy.

            That’s inane.

  5. deb

    A truly heartbreaking story, pb.

    Even scarier: it could happen to any one of us. Whether insured or uninsured, we’re fooling ourselves if we think we’re immune from such a horror.

  6. deb

    Good grief, BS. Did you even read the story? Her husband’s $150,000 life insurance policy barely covered the chopper flight and the first surgeries.


    One serious illness, one catastrophic accident, and it’s all gone.

    (Excuse my ‘yelling’)

    • goof houlihan

      Yell all you want. 150,000 worth of life insurance on the primary breadwinner is nothing. It’s not covering college for the kids, not when it’s a decade or more getting them there.

      Last time I checked, I found no guarrantees in this life, except for death and taxes. We can rage against the dying of the light, but it’s happening anyway.

      It’s a poignant story. But there’s 100 million stories out there, of people who died with insurance, whose families didn’t go broke, of people who lived through cancer, who aren’t using the food bank. Their stories are no less heartstring tugging because they didn’t go bankrupt.

      • She had a health insurance policy. They denied her claim. They didn’t like the hospital – the better caregiver – and rationed the care.

        Don’t say that the market provides the best care when this sort of thing happens every single day.

        Here’s some claims denial rates by leading CA insurers for the first 6 months of ’09: PacifiCare-39.6% Cigna-32.7% HealthNet-30% Kaiser-Permanente-28.3% Blue Cross-27.9%

        Crazy – 1 in 3 are denied claims by the leading insurers. We all know Montana is behind California…so when is that coming here?

        Not IF, but WHEN.

        Not gonna happen to you, though. Right?

  7. problembear

    yet, just a few hundred miles away in canada, young widows are not paupered…..but that’s the breaks huh, goof? as long as you and the weasels get their cut.

  8. Nice post, pb.

    Everyone knows someone who has faced a similar tragedy, but STILL we need to personalize these issues.

    Every congressman and woman who is obstructionist in the health-care debate needs to look themselves in the mirror and explain why folks like Susan are treated this way. How much longer must we all wait?

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