The Price of Life: Battling medical debt in the Midlands

Updated: Nov. 13, 2019 at 4:48 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Choosing between the care you need, and the bills you have to pay.

Weighing the option of life in debt, or the possibility of death.

Millions of Americans are forced to decide; what’s the price of life?

Dr. Emily Hoppmann is a woman in the Midlands who is currently fighting that battle.

Going to school. Buying a house. Opening her own animal clinic.

Hoppmann is someone who did things responsibly.

“I got into vet school without even having to finish my degree, I was competitive enough,” Hoppmann said. “I was able to buy a hospital before I was 30. And then it’s just like constantly getting kicked in the face and being put years backwards from where you’re supposed to be.”

Unfortunately, Hoppmann’s hard work couldn’t protect her from a series of unexpected surgeries that would leave her with crippling medical debt over the last decade.

She’s spent most of her adult life in and out of doctor’s offices and operating rooms, now needing a hospital bed in her own home.

“Had some severe abdominal pain,” Hoppmann said. “Which led to more surgeries than I can count to trying and figure out what was going on. They tried hormone therapy, which put me through menopause at 20.”

Hoppmann has insurance.

With her extensive medical background, she understands the importance of good coverage. But the nearly $500 a month that goes towards her plan, doesn’t seem to be making a dent in the thousands it costs for her to get treated.

“You’re looking at about 16 pills a day. Just one of those medications for a month’s supply is almost $23,000, even with insurance,” Hoppmann said. “Another one is over $8,000 a month with insurance. So I took myself off of those…because dealing with the side effects is easier than being able to afford them. But, I’m still miserable. I’m still in pain every day.”

As far as the growing bills are concerned, Hoppmann’s story isn’t unique.

Unpaid medical bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy for Americans, and research shows most families aren’t equipped to handle an unexpected medical expense of over $2000.

Professor Banky Olatosi from the University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public Health. He says one issue is that most people don’t fully understand is what their coverage actually covers.

Most people don’t pay attention to it. It’s almost like ‘If it doesn’t happen to me, then I don’t care about it,’” Olatosi said. “However…it could happen to any of us. It could change your life so quickly.”

Olatosi says it’s easy to think that having insurance is enough. But, let’s say you get into a serious car accident and your medical care costs $100,000. Even if your insurance covers 80 percent of that, a $20,000 bill is still headed to your mailbox.

“The kind of costs we’re talking about here, unless you’re very rich, will basically knock your savings out,” Olatosi said. “So you see families that are easily ruined when this occurs. There’s no way to prepare for it. It has to be a systemic way to deal with the issue yet, and we’ve not done that yet. We’ve focused a lot on access, and increasing access to care, but we’ve not talked about the coverage the access providers.”

Right now, patients like Hoppmann are stuck in a cycle that’s all too common. Working to pay recurring medical bills, while being unable to afford the top-shelf medicine or care that could actually help her get better.

“You’re asking for people to go bankrupt,” Hoppmann said. “You’re asking for small businesses to go under, and we’re going to end up in this big box world where people just don’t matter.”

But the bills are still coming, and the pain is still there. Hoppmann is still forced to choose whether she’ll continue to live with that pain or fall even further into debt to try and get the care that she needs.

“Do you keep fighting? Because it feels like you’re never going to win,” she said. “What they’re basically asking me is for me to put a price on my life. And I don’t think that’s a fair place to put anyone in.”

Professor Olatosi says that, at this point, many patients have to turn to social media just to cover those expenses.

In Hoppmann’s case, a close friend set up a GoFundMe to help put a dent in her extensive medical costs.

She says her friends, family, and the love she has for the animals at her clinic are what keep her going.

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