Sick, Sicker, Sicko 

Tales of the young and uninsured in Tampa Bay -- and some alternatives for finding care.

Michael Moore's latest media blitz has ensured that his mug, and his movie, would be everywhere this summer (including -- look! -- the cover of Creative Loafing). But the build-up to SiCKO lacks the conspiracy-laden, self-aggrandizing stamp we've come to know and love from previous Moore escapades like Roger & Me and Bowling for Columbine. Maybe it's because his subject this time around is the disastrous state of U.S. healthcare; as he said on a recent visit to Oprah, the problem is a matter "of we, not me."

click to enlarge "OUR HEALTHCARE SYSTEM IS SO UNEQUAL": Ben Hardisty has a hereditary condition that makes his bones easily breakable. He has been fighting much of his life for Medicaid coverage. - DAWN MORGAN
  • Dawn Morgan
  • "OUR HEALTHCARE SYSTEM IS SO UNEQUAL": Ben Hardisty has a hereditary condition that makes his bones easily breakable. He has been fighting much of his life for Medicaid coverage.

The health-care story is everyone's story; the health and financial ruin of one eventually shakes the web that connects us all. And health-care disasters are not limited to the elderly, ethnic minorities or families living in poverty. As the following personal accounts suggest, young people can find themselves without insurance for a variety of reasons, from lifelong disease to hubris to pure bad luck. When they do, they're at the mercy of a system that all but builds walls to keep them from adequate care. I know – one of those stories is my own.

There are alternatives and people with good ideas. People like Bea Dreier, executive director of Tampa's Judeo Christian Health Clinic; Dr. Don Wedemeyer, a general-practice physician with an innovative practice in Seminole Heights; and county services that serve the needy in both Hillsborough and Pinellas. But the question remains, voiced eloquently by Dreier: "From the very beginning, we've seen patients come in desperate for care. I thought, 'Why aren't these people revolting in the streets?'"

Ben Hardisty: Bad Breaks

Ben Hardisty, 27, isn't an average Gen-Xer. In fact, as a person with fibrous dysplasi, he's one in 80,000. He was diagnosed at 8 years old with the hereditary condition that makes his bones easily breakable. It's a "big deal in med schools. They probably won't see it but should know what it is," Ben says.

Before he turned 18, Ben had broken or fractured more than 30 bones. He grew up in Rhode Island; his mother, who had a pottery business, didn't make much money and so was eligible for Medicaid. A good thing, too; she did some investigating and found out that private insurance for his condition would have cost $20,000 a year. Yet on Medicaid, he was taken care of by the best doctors at Harvard-affiliated Children's Hospital Boston, even getting to see an expert.

"This is no garden-variety disability," Ben says, laughing from his wheelchair. Last December, he tripped in a downtown St. Pete establishment and broke his kneecap. He went to the ER, and though the doctor who received him said he had to have surgery soon, Ben was referred back to a doctor he had seen the previous year (for a broken arm, which Ben paid for with his school grant money) who was familiar with his condition. Hardisty hadn't had insurance since Medicaid released him; he quickly applied for it online but was denied, though his surgery was to take place in four days. Bayfront proceeded with the surgery despite his inability to pay; his mother had to pay $200 cash, however, for anesthesia. (Anesthesia at Bayfront is the province of private practitioners, and the administering doctor determines payment.)

In the ensuing months, he racked up bills, not just for the surgery but for follow-up care and physical therapy, none of which he could pay. Bayfront started turning him away for services. Since the initial fall, he's been denied Medicaid five times because, he was told, he did not meet disability requirements. Ben explains that if he had sustained a different injury that would have made working impossible-- a broken femur, for instance, instead of a kneecap -- he would have qualified (he had previously broken both femurs three times as a youth and was covered). An advocate has been working with Ben to figure out how to qualify him for Medicaid.

A recent USF graduate in political science (paid for by loans, grants and scholarships), Ben hasn't worked in four years and lives with his mother. "I can't even get out of the house most of the time. I can't walk around on crutches or my good leg would break," he says. He adds that he read about a new osteoporosis drug that has been said to benefit those with fibrous dysplasi, but he does not have a regular doctor to prescribe it to him. "Our health-care system is so unequal," he says. Hardisty was accepted to USF for graduate study in environmental engineering beginning this fall; he would like to be a biology professor. He believes a position at any university will finally afford him regular care for his condition.

"Mike": Charity Case

Mike, 25, is one of the 47 million Americans without health insurance. Not because of unemployment; in fact, at the time of his accident last year he had a good-paying job. But believing (like many young people) that he was invincible, he preferred a larger paycheck to health benefits through his job.

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