Citizen Green: Healthcare for the poor on the borderline

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Christy Solomon's lost her best friend to an overdose in 2018. She was unable to access treatment because she lacked health insurance. (photo by Jordan Green)

Christy Solomon was struggling with an addiction as a resident of Rockingham County. With her mother’s help, she found a treatment program across the state line in Virginia, but she wasn’t able to stay with it long because she had criminal charges there.

There were “no recovery support or resources, no jobs” in Rockingham County, so Solomon and her partner moved to Wilmington. Because she’s uninsured, she has to pay out of pocket for bloodwork, and has had to miss work for doctor and dentist visits because local providers are prohibitively expensive.

Her best friend, who was also uninsured, died from an overdose in January 2018. Solomon thinks her friend might be alive today if she and her husband had insurance and had been able to access treatment.

“Regular people, addicts, people with mental health issues, they just want a chance at life, too,” said Solomon, who works as a restaurant server. “That’s why we seek recovery and we seek treatment. It was so hard for me to get in a treatment facility because I had no insurance.”

Since 2013, Republican lawmakers have repeatedly rejected entreaties to expand Medicaid to cover those who make more than the federal poverty level — the current cutoff for the program — but less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level required to qualify for subsidies under the Affordable Care Act. For a family of four, the coverage gap falls between $25,100 and $34,638.

North Carolina is one of only 13 states that has refused to expand Medicaid while turning away billions of dollars in federal funding and leaving hundreds of thousands of residents without coverage. One of the powerbrokers responsible for denying people like Solomon coverage is Phil Berger, the Republican leader of the state Senate, who represents Rockingham County.

“Because of this misguided decision I continue to see many folks frozen out of our healthcare system,” said Dr. Steve Luking, who maintains a family medical practice with his brother in Reidsville.

Luking said he recently saw a patient whom he had previously hospitalized for a serious stroke. The man stopped showing up for regular checkups after he, along with hundreds of others, was laid off from the MillerCoors plant in Eden, and his insurance eventually ran out. Luking said his patient came back complaining about “bad headaches, high blood pressure through the roof, and out of all his medications, which prevent him from having another stroke.” The man refused to get the bloodwork that Luking ordered because there was no way he could afford the $200 bill.

“I don’t know if I’ll see him again, or when I’ll see him again,” Dr. Luking said. “I just know he’s at serious risk for another stroke. The next one will likely put him in a nursing home.”

Just 25 miles to the north, the fortunes of the working poor have dramatically turned.

Jean Jackson, of Danville, Va., was driving home from a second-shift job at night when she began to have trouble with her vision. An eye doctor told her she had cataracts.

“I walked around for a year with blurry vision and getting home before dark if I had to drive was a must,” she said. In July 2017, she made the difficult decision to retire early at the age of 62. On one hand she knew that by retiring she would lose health coverage, but she also knew it wasn’t safe for her to continue driving at night. The following spring, Jackson also received a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes, and wondered how she would be able to afford to pay for medication.

But in May 2018, the Virginia legislature voted to expand Medicaid. Up to 375,000 residents are expected to be added to the rolls, according to a report in the Washington Post.

Jackson received a letter stating that she was approved in December. As a result, on Feb. 8, she will be able to get cataract surgery.

She held up the letter during a press conference hosted by the NC Justice Center at Rockingham Community College on Tuesday.

“When I opened it, I danced like David danced because I’m going to be able see again and I’m going to be able to drive at night,” Jackson said.

“Medicaid expansion gave me hope because now I’m learning how to take care of myself so I can have a longer, happier life to share with my children, grandchildren and my great-grandchildren.” Jackson added.

Solomon, who left Rockingham County to get treatment in Wilmington, said she won’t return. Her partner has a good job in Wilmington and there’s not much reason to look back. But she hasn’t forgotten.

She remembers working at Chaney’s Restaurant in Eden with her mother for a period and serving Phil Berger.

“I just don’t understand how Phil Berger can sleep at night,” Solomon said. “He is the voice for Rockingham County, and he’s not speaking up at all. People in Rockingham County are dying all the time. My newsfeed on Facebook is filled with it. My heart’s broke from my best friend dying. I deal with it every day. Five years ago, if he would have voted yes, she would still be here.”

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