Deborah Cearnal, 50, a single woman living in Stuart, has been getting
by nicely, if modestly, all of her life — until now.
Now she is suffering sticker shock of the
"I'm one of those people who has always
paid her bills. I can't stand to have a bill hanging over me."
Now she has a biggie. June 11, working
two jobs but with no medical insurance, Cearnal went to the Martin
County Regional Medical Center with excruciating lower back pain. She
thought she was dying.
Kidney stones will do that. She was
treated and on her way home in 2 1/2 hours.
"The ER doctor charged me $416 for seeing
me for fewer than five minutes," she wrote. "Another doctor billed $303
for reading the CAT scan."
A thoracic and pelvic CAT scan came in at
$2,313 and $1,813, respectively.
In addition to charges too tedious to
list here was $437 for an IV infusion and something called a direct IV
push saline lock at $161. A $112 visual urine pregnancy test might have
been avoided if someone had thought to ask whether it was even possible
for Cearnal to be pregnant.
"I had a tubal ligation years ago," she
This is not about outlandish medical
bills. Of course they are outlandish. People who can pay are beat about
the head and shoulders to recover prodigious sums lost from those who
This is about the helplessness and sense
of desolation that descends on a usually self-sufficient worker and
taxpayer who suddenly realizes that the very roof over her head hangs on
a gossamer thread that is her health.
Kidney stones? Piffle. Seven grand for a
few tests? A trifle compared to what it could have been. Cearnal knows
that a heart attack or stroke or cancer would have meant tens of
thousands of dollars she could not possibly repay at a time when she has
had to borrow from family and credit cards to make her house payments.
What happens to her home and paid-for car
if she cannot work her two jobs?
Cearnal is scared and anxious, grappling
with the realization that working 44 hours barely enables her to meet
her obligations. One more trip to the ER, or the loss of one of her
jobs, and her life is in ruins. This at 50 years old and single. This
after three decades of work and self-sufficiency.
How could it happen to her?
Born in Georgia, Cearnal grew up in
Jacksonville and earned a journalism degree at the University of
Florida. She worked eight years at the
Gainesville Sun and married a
pressman; they moved to Rochester, N.Y., where she put him through a
printing trade school.
"And then he dumped me," she said. They
were childless, and she remained single.
Cearnal worked for newspapers in Fort
Myers and Macon before moving to Stuart in 1993 to work as a news
editor. After a series of arguments over editing methods, her
resignation was accepted in 1994. "I was tired of moving and wanted to
stay in Stuart."
For two years she worked as a probation
officer. Since the mid-'90s, she has worked as a clerk-typist, welfare
counselor and cashier for Dunkin' Donuts, Publix and Walgreen's
Pharmacy. She's now found a career she loves (while still working
weekends for Publix): test administrator for Indian River Community
"My boss is phenomenal, and I love the
work atmosphere. The pay is good, but I can only work 24 hours a week,
so I have to get in as many hours as I can at Publix on weekends."
For now, neither job provides medical
insurance, and her $350 a week take-home pay just covers her living
expenses, with a little left over to repay loans incurred during
Tight as Cearnal's budget has been, it
had sustained her myth of self-sufficiency. The $7,000 medical bill
exploded that myth, shaking her confidence that things will be fine if
she just keeps plugging away.
Now that she has experienced an uninsured medical emergency, her fear
comes with a dose of self-reproach for her inability to stay insured.
And there's one more thing when she's through scolding herself for her
career shortcomings. She would like it very much if we would indulge her
in a small entitlement rant.
First, let it be known that Cearnal
believes in the entitlement of others, paid for with her
taxes. But why, she asks, can't they flow back her direction before she
loses her health, her job, her home?
Where, she asks, are the safety nets — the entitlements if you will —
for a 50-year-old single woman who has spent three decades paying into
the system: paying school taxes without children of her own in school,
paying hospital district taxes to a system with no provision for workers
who temporarily lose health insurance during job transition.
Take it away, Deborah Cearnal:
"As a single, childless working woman, I get no tax breaks. I make too
much at two part-time jobs to qualify for food stamps or Medicaid.
(During recent periods of unemployment) I put my house payments on
low-interest credit cards, which I am still paying off.
"But there are times when single people need assistance, too. I'm sick
and tired of being taxed for immigrant health care, public schools,
child care, the rebuilding of Iraq. I wouldn't resent all the years of
paying other peoples' bills if I could feel the system was there for me
when I needed it."
Cearnal seemed to feel better after telling her story. She felt better
still when I told her that most hospitals will negotiate down a bill for
uninsured people who do not qualify for Medicaid.
Later, I wondered how much a hospital credit counselor would knock off a
bill if you promised to go to another hospital next time.