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Uninsured Cary woman struggling to battle cancer

Posted December 29, 2015
Updated December 31, 2015

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— The last time Cheryl Handy saw an oncologist for her cancer and chronic bone infection was in 2012 when she was working in Chicago.

Now, the Cary woman is dying of untreated cancer because she cannot afford health insurance. The sickness forced Handy out of a job, and she was turned down for Medicaid.

Since then, she has had no follow up, no cancer care and no treatment for the bone infection.

Handy moved back to her hometown of Cary to take care of her dad, who later died of colon cancer. She's now taking care of her 80-year-old mother and does not work outside the home.

Most days, she's weak and in pain.

"I need medical care in order to be healthy enough to be an employee to be able to work outside the house," Handy said. "As my health deteriorates, it makes me (a) less reliable employee, so I can't get a job."

Handy tried to get coverage through the federal government's online insurance marketplace, HealthCare.gov, but it would have cost nearly $900 a month, and she didn't qualify for subsidies – those whose incomes are below 100 percent of the federal poverty line do not qualify for tax credits from the Affordable Care Act.

"I didn't have proof of income," Handy said. "My mom has Social Security, and that's our household income, but I don't have personal income."

The next option would be Medicaid, but childless adults in North Carolina don't qualify unless they are disabled.

Handy filed for disability, but she was denied because her medical records were too old.

She said she can't get updated medical assessments because doctors won't treat her.

"These oncologists literally will hang up the phone on me as soon as I say I don't have insurance," Handy said.

Handy said she wants to work if she could just get healthy.

"Oh my goodness, yes. Yes, I do," Handy said. "I went to law school. I passed the bar in Illinois. I'm an intelligent person. I just have to be healthy."

Handy is working to get her paralegal certification. If she succeeds, she might be able to work from home and afford health care.

Until then, however, Handy is frustrated and worried.

"I feel the mass under my armpit, and I get scared," Handy said.

Handy said she reached out to state leaders, but all she got was political rhetoric.

Republicans told her that her situation means the Affordable Care Act needs to go. Democrats said it's another example of why North Carolina needs to expand Medicaid.

"Meanwhile, people like me are just sitting there saying, 'We don't need to repeal right now. We don't need to expand Medicaid. You need to realize there's a problem,'" Handy said. "Until the politicians realize the difficulties some of us are having managing the system, then they can't fix the system."

There are other options for care available for people battling cancer. Project Access is a program that connects low-income patients with the health care they need. The Pretty in Pink Foundation provides financial assistance for North Carolinians fighting breast cancer. The CCC Safety Net Clinic Referral List finds locations that provide primary care to people with limited or no income. Care Share Health Alliance helps communities coordinate care and other resources for underserved people through collaboration.

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  • Emma Handy Dec 30, 2015
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    Yes. I can afford a private direct pay primary care doctor. I pay about $75/month to a doctor for unlimited visits and reduced cost labs and meds (if I need them). It's less expensive, better care than a free clinic. Moreover, I don't want to take public resources that are needed by the real poor. The problem with ACA is that I can't get specialist care (cancer and infectious disease) because I can't afford non- subsided insurance under ACA. There should be an option to buy competitively priced hospital and serious illness/accident insurance. I'm not alone. Some people have ACA ins but can't afford care after that expense.

  • Emma Handy Dec 30, 2015
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    Hi Carol. I'm Cheryl Handy. What questions can I answer for you?

  • Emma Handy Dec 30, 2015
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    A primary care doctor cannot provide documentation for cancer or infectious disease. I would need insurance to be able to get to specialists. The Catch 22 is that all of the specialists I called in Cary and Raleugh require insurance. I offered to pay cash for exams so that a foundation like Pretty in Pink could help me with bills. But all specialists want insurance.

  • Emma Handy Dec 30, 2015
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    I grew up in Cary. I returned to Cary to care for my elderly parents. I am a flaming conservative Republican who supports repeal of ACA and no expansion of Medicaid.

  • Emma Handy Dec 30, 2015
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    I don't want anyone to pay for anything! I want ACA to be repealed. In its place, I'd prefer being able to buy real catastrophic insurance for hospital only. I can pay for my own primary care. I don't want Disability. It would just be the only way to get medical care for someone in the gap like me.

  • Barbara Bono Dec 30, 2015
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    Your physician has to refer you to Project Access and only certain doctors are eligible to refer. http://projectaccess.wakedocs.org/Forms/2015/CCC%20Safety-Net%20Clinic%20Referral%20List%2011-24-15.pdf You may have shot yourself in the foot by going to (and proving you can afford) a private physician. Since she is new to Wake County, she may need to inquire about becoming part of this program since her pay-for-services is different than many offices. Best of luck to you.

  • Emma Handy Dec 30, 2015
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    On Monday I started treating with a direct pay model physician who started her Raleigh practice in November 2015. Project Access is closed until January 6. I'm not sure they will refer me to specialists since I now have a private physician. But I will ask them on January 6.

  • Barbara Bono Dec 30, 2015
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    Have you tried any of Wake Health services, the Wake County Health Department, Alliance , Open Door Clinic or anywhere else that could serve you as primary care (pay on sliding scale , which would should be low to none in this case) and refer you through Project Access to the specialists?

  • Emma Handy Dec 30, 2015
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    As someone who is stuck in the healthcare gap, I don't support expansion of Medicaid. I think people should be able to purchase solely real catastrophic insurance for unexpected illness and accidents. I think people should pay for their own primary care through direct pay models that reject government and private insurance. I also think that the state of NC should return to a true high risk pool for those with pre-existing conditions. The original Inclusive Health was a great program.

    I also think that we as adults should be mindful of the struggling people among us. We all have our personal struggles that we bravely wake up and handle every day. It's striking to me that adults could insult and mock me for doing nothing other than stepping up (after struggling quietly for 3 years) to bring to light a real problem. The insurance and access to care gap may not effect you. But it effects me every day. I'm not asking anyone for anything. I'm just shining light on the problem.

  • Emma Handy Dec 30, 2015
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    Reaching out to WRAL was not something I did easily. I have been bullied and called a liar on social media when I speak out about my inability to get medical care. It becomes a very emotion and political issue for many people. That is confirmed by the comments here.
    The dilemma is that "Medicaid" uses household income (including the SSI of elderly parents that many of us care for) and "ACA Subsidies" use only the income of the applicant. My household income for purposes of Medicaid is too high to qualify. My personal income for purposes of ACA subsidies is too low to qualify - if you have no income then you cannot get a subsidy.

    Many people are just like me - we have a pre-existing condition but no job because we are caring for elderly parents. ACA contemplates health insurance through an employer.

    Republicans say: repeal Obamacare! Democrats say: Expand Medicaid! The reason I contacted Renee Chou and WRAL is because there is a significant number of us that fall in a gap.

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