Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash.

This is a hard one to talk about. It’ll be more of a rant. And I’d like to preface it with all of the obvious about how grateful I am that we were in the economic position we were in when this illness started, how grateful I am that I had a few years of good earnings and decent savings, how grateful I am that my family is healthy and has never been bankrupted by health woes. I am, I truly am, and I think about–probably too much–what must happen to others with a severe chronic illness (that has no knowledgeable doctors and no decent treatment) who are in worse financial shape than we are, without our resources, who are in countries steeped in poverty, refugees fleeing wars… on and on… I do know how lucky I am. But, I’m scared. Mostly because I don’t know what treatment to spend money on and what to reject.

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Recently, after 6 months of immunoglobulin infusions, I got a slew of bills that I didn’t anticipate. It turns out that for my itsy bitsy dose of 5 grams each week, I pay $164 after insurance. Out-of-pocket. That’s $655 per month. If I had known this before starting, would I have done it? I don’t know. But now that this is the only treatment that has helped me, how can I stop? And I’m in this tricky spot. I have private health insurance because I was too scared Medicare wouldn’t cover these treatments (also because Medicare won’t cover acupuncture, nutritionists or physical/myofascial/craniosacral/massage therapy — some of the only things that have made a difference in my pain levels). After being told IVIG was not an option by so many doctors, knowing that I didn’t have a history of bacterial infections and a vaccine challenge is usually required for approval, and having Coram (the infusion service) tell me that Medicare hardly ever covers treatment, I was just too scared to give up the private health insurance that had already approved my treatment for the whole year. Of course, I have since heard from others that Medicare covers their IVIG or SCIG at 100%, but … how could I risk changing coverage now when my IgG levels have come up and that alone might disqualify me from continued treatment? I’ll have to revisit this next January when I’m eligible for Medicare enrollment again, but, if I’m still improving with my infusions, I don’t know how I’d take that leap of faith.

An aside for those in other countries or for those that don’t know this fucked up aspect of our healthcare system here in the U.S.: Medicare (government health coverage) isn’t free. You pay each month just as you do with private health insurance. It’s usually cheaper, but not always. It can range from $105-$771 a month, depending on your situation (the higher end is reserved for people who have not worked enough in their lifetimes to qualify. So, if you are struck down with a chronic illness as a young adult and you haven’t worked the requisite 30 quarters in a tax-paying job, you’re not married and you undoubtedly have little savings, then you get to pay the highest premium for our national health coverage– oh, but only if you’re lucky enough to be granted full disability, which very few ME/CFS/Lyme sufferers are). And don’t think that Medicare actually covers your healthcare in full, though. You will still have a deductible each year and co-insurance (the patient pays 20%, typically), you’re prescription medications aren’t paid for unless you get extra coverage and hospital stays can still leave you in horrendous debt. You can stay in a hospital for a few months for the low, low price of $1,260 (although skilled nursing facilities will be more because that price doesn’t cover people to care for you), but let’s take a pretty terrible example: 150 days in the hospital. In 2015, that would have cost you $47,565 out-of-pocket. If you had to stay any longer, all additional costs are your problem. The government washes its hands of you. But wait, there’s more! If you choose not to enroll in Medicare when you become eligible, your monthly payment when you do enroll will be higher–forever–usually 10% higher for each year you could have signed up but didn’t. In my case, if I’m covered by Medicare next year, I will be paying an extra $300/year because I didn’t enroll when I first became eligible. If I wait until 2018, I’ll pay a penalty of at least $440 that year, plus more each year as the premiums continue to rise over my lifetime. Lovely.

SO… Last month I finished up weeks of financial slog for our 2015 taxes and was happy to see our (and by our, I mean my because my husband’s medical expenses are only about a quarter of our total and that is solely health insurance premiums because he never needs a doctor, knock on wood, toba toba) out-of-pocket medical costs had come down slightly.

2012: $14,480
2013: $19,032
2014: $19,564
2015: $17,912

That doesn’t allay the fear, however. After utilities (sewer, water, garbage, recycling, gas, electricity) and mortgage payments, we’re left with about $20K a year to live on and medical expenses have been almost $20K a year since I got sick. That means most everything else–food, clothes, toiletries, dogs, phone, internet, gas for cars– comes out of our savings. I’m trying to be healthier, place fewer burdens on my system and subdue my chemical sensitivities by eating organic food, pastured meat and buying less toxic products. All of these things are more expensive. For the last year and a half, I’ve been paying $200/month for compounded medications instead of the cheap, generic, filler-filled ones. It hardly costs anything to get sick, but the system is rigged to bankrupt those that are.

I feel very fortunate that we had saved money before this happened, but it will run out eventually and I don’t want to make all the wrong decisions now because I’m frozen in fear of the future. Our day-to-day living is all-encompassing, so time slips by in survival mode and the big decisions never get discussed. I’m happy that we didn’t sell the house when I first got sick because we’re finally not under water and it might actually be worth what we owe again. But when do we sell? And do I switch back to generic meds? Do I stop supplements (around $100/month)? Do I stop seeing my doctor who doesn’t take health insurance? Do I not try human growth hormone or hyperbaric oxygen or nutritional IVs? Do I stop my immunoglobulin infusions?? Last year, I thought a time would come when we just moved somewhere very small and affordable, maybe a foreign country, and I stopped all medical visits and we tried to exist on pittance and make our money last as long as possible… But now that I’ve found a treatment that helps my functioning, I have renewed hope. Maybe I’ll be able to earn a living again if I keep making progress. How can I give up on that? Or should I accept the fact that this is as good as it’s going to get, income-wise? My husband will get older, he’ll be able to work his manual-labour job less and less and I won’t ever recover to the point of being able to hold a job… I think that’s the reality. I know a lot of people with this illness and many have made improvements, but I’m not sure if I know any that have gone back to full-time work.

So, we beat on, boats against the current, cut costs where we can, shop the deals online, grow some veggies, sell some stuff, and pray that in ten years time, the tides have changed for the better.

Title Credit

Buffers can help, but sometimes not enough…

My brain MRI was fine. No evidence of MS, no sign of something causing my headaches. My c-spine MRI showed that I have mild intervertebral disk space narrowing and mild central disc osteophyte complex, centered at C4. I won’t go into the history of my neck problems, but if this is “mild” I feel very, very sorry for anyone with moderate or severe problems. When my neck has “gone out”, the pain is 10 out of 10. It is like nothing I’ve felt before. Can’t lie down, sit down, move arms, head, back… I’ve showed up at the doctor’s office twice at 7:30am, without an appointment, crying and begging for help. Both times they gave me injections in my butt that knocked me out for almost two days. I guess, if the bone problem is mild, the muscle problem can still be severe. My physical therapist said I had the worst case of hypermobility in my neck that she had ever encountered. It must have been from all my head banging, rock ‘n’ roll days and all the extreme sports I played. That’s sarcasm. I didn’t do anything!

My neck first went out a week after a particularly bone-rattling roller coaster called The Iron Wolf. It was a stand-up roller coaster and they had head buffers on both sides to minimize injury as you were being tossed around. I was too short for them to buff properly, though, and my head and neck took a battering. My brain felt blended. One week later, I tried to get out of bed and couldn’t. The neck pain was excruciating, radiating down my limbs. I was so unfamiliar with bone/muscle pain, that I thought I was going to be paralyzed. I thought my spine was fractured or something. I lay there for hours with tears running into my ears, waiting for my husband to get home. That one healed on its own since I had no health insurance at the time, but I’ve had problems ever since. I guess I did go into the history of my neck problems, after all!

Anyway, back to the present: I added back in rice to my diet with no adverse effects. Unless this exhaustion and pain are caused by the rice?? Haha. Just kidding. I’ve added flax to my smoothies and started taking the zinc and ferrous gluconate supplements. The latter is meant to be taken 1 hour after food and 2 hours before food and, let me tell you, it is VERY HARD for me not to eat for 3 hours, so I’m cheating a bit on that one.

I stopped taking the birth control pill yesterday. My headache is all day, every day and is crippling me. I’ve spent a lot of time lying down in dark rooms in the last 3 weeks, my face is permanently pinched, I can’t deal with too much light or noise. I am constantly alternating epsom salt baths, ice packs, arnica, IcyHot spray, TENS unit, meditation, breathing exercises, anything I can think of to ease up my neck and back muscles and hopefully help the headache. After much research on my headache support group forum, I’ve convinced myself that it is caused by the pill, so I am going go stop taking it for a month and see what happens. I also want to quit the pill because I’m extremely sedentary and that contributes to the risk of blood clots (and being over 35 years of age). I actually think I would prefer any other pain to this headache (except for maybe the aforementioned 10-out-of-10 neck pain… and, when my period hits, I’m sure I’ll amend that statement).

I woke up full of gratitude this morning. There are people out there dealing with this and other illnesses with little to no support, starting their journey with so much less than I have. My heart breaks for them. Without my income, I am terrified of losing our house, our savings, our health insurance, but I could have started this illness with no house, no savings and no health insurance. What do people do? I am blessed and grateful to have a slight buffer. Like The Iron Wolf’s buffers, it may not be enough to save me down the road, but, for now, I can ride the roller coaster.