Camille Landry is a writer, activist, and social justice advocate who lives in Oklahoma City. This post is part of our “Neglected Oklahoma” series, which tells the stories of Oklahomans in situations where the basic necessities of life are hard to come by. These are real people and their stories are true (names have been changed to protect privacy).
It’s Saturday morning at a free clinic in an Oklahoma City church staffed by student volunteers. Another group of volunteers is serving breakfast. There are over 100 people waiting for medical care. Many of those waiting have chronic diseases – diabetes, hypertension, asthma and/or heart disease. The patients are mostly between 18 and 65 – too old for Medicaid, too young for Medicare – but a few children wait to be seen, too. Most of the adults are employed. None of them have health insurance.
George Carter sits at the table reading a textbook as he waits his turn. He is clean-cut and polite. George was 22 when he left a job at a big box store to attend college full time. “I was healthy. I was strong,” he says. “I planned to finish my computer science degree and join the Navy.”
George had been having back pain but didn’t think it was serious – until he woke up in excruciating pain. He had two ruptured disks. The injury is not covered by worker’s compensation since he didn’t file a claim before he left his job.
His mother’s insurance covered back surgery because George was a full-time student, but when his 23rd birthday came, he was automatically dropped from the policy. When the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) kicked in, George was 26 – too old to be covered by a parent’s plan.
He had to move in with his mother. George lives with searing pain, numbness and weakness that make it difficult to walk, sit or stand. He studies computer science via online courses and works from home as a telephone solicitor.
George is at the free clinic today hoping for a prescription for muscle relaxers and a referral to a neurologist that he can afford. He won’t take narcotics: “I can’t risk addiction for temporary pain relief. I make do with Tylenol and Advil and muscle relaxers, a heating pad, and an ice pack.” He hasn’t seen a doctor in over a year.
What about Obamacare? Because he lives in Oklahoma, health insurance isn’t an option for George. The Affordable Care Act works by giving tax credits to working people that pays most of their insurance premiums. Since Oklahoma lawmakers have opted not to accept federal funds for extending Medicaid eligibility, some 150,000 Oklahomans with incomes below the poverty level have been left without assistance for purchasing health insurance. George is one of them.
It does not have to be this way. For example, Kentucky has a gross domestic product similar to Oklahoma’s. Its per-capita income is slightly lower than Oklahoma’s, and it has a similar number of uninsured residents. Unlike Oklahoma’s Governor Mary Fallin, Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear signed on to the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion program. If George lived in Kentucky, he would be able to access the medical care he needs.
A nurse calls his name and George steps behind a curtain to be examined. He emerges with ibuprofen and a prescription for muscle relaxers, plus a referral to a clinic staffed by residents from the OU School of Medicine. He needs $125 to be seen at the clinic. This has to be paid before he can see a doctor. He will have to work out a payment plan.
“All I need is a little help and I can get a job, pay taxes, be a contributor instead of a recipient. Our taxes pay for people in other states to get health care but there’s no help for me here.”
George pushes aside the pancakes and slowly rises to his feet. “I refuse to stop trying. I got knocked down, but I will get up again.”
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