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Uninsured face ruin as lawyers debate

Joanie_and_Courtney_Pape_cropped_big.jpg

By Mary Jo Melone
7/16/2010 © Health News Florida

Joanie Pape of Navarre, 48, lost her job as a bank branch manager in January. With it went her health insurance, including coverage for her children, both students at Pensacola Junior College.

In March, Courtney Pape, 24, and her brother Camryn, 19, were in a car accident. Both suffered serious head injuries and needed extensive hospital care.

They're now home recovering, but the family's finances haven't. Pape, who gets $494 every two weeks in unemployment, owes more than $100,000 in hospital bills.

A home health service changed its mind about providing her daughter physical therapy for her leg and treating an elbow wound when it became clear that Courtney had no insurance, Pape says.

Courtney, Joanie Pape

Courtney was sent home with a leg brace instead. Pape cleaned the elbow wound herself with a saline solution, wrapped it in gauze and covered it with a plastic bag. It eventually healed.

Camryn needs more plastic surgery, but Pape already owes $7,000 and is paying the surgeon $20 a month, all she can afford.

Pape worries about taking her children to the doctor when they get new aches and pains, because the bills will only grow.

The new federal health law that was signed into law March 23, the day before Courtney and Camryn's accident, won't help the Papes for 3 1/2 years. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act takes full effect in 2014.
 
Then, if they don't get coverage in the workplace, they will be able to shop at online insurance exchanges. If they can’t afford the full premiums, they can get subsidies.

Those who decline to buy insurance would have to pay a fine -- $695 at the outset, increasing after that. The law is being challenged by Florida and about 20 other states as unconstitutional.

Florida Atty. Gen. Bill McCollum filed suit against the law in a federal court in Pensacola a few days before the Papes' accident. McCollum argues that the government cannot force citizens to buy health insurance, the so-called "individual mandate."

The architects of the law included the individual mandate because actuaries said that if they didn’t, many people would not buy insurance until they became ill. Under such a setup, the system would collapse financially.

One of the named plaintiffs in McCollum's suit is another middle-aged Panhandle woman, Mary Brown of Panama City.

Brown owns a car business and doesn’t have health insurance. When Health News Florida called Brown and asked what she would do if she suddenly got sick, she said only, “So far, I’ve been very healthy.”

She declined to say anything more.

Pape said she could understand the thinking of people who don’t want to pay for what they think they’ll never need. “I never dreamed my kids would get involved in something like this, so I can see why people would say, ‘It could never happen to me.’”

But now that the unthinkable has happened to her, her opinion is rock-solid: “I think everybody should have medical insurance,” she said. Not having it "just leaves people wide open.” 

--Mary Jo Melone is an independent journalist in Tampa.