‘It’s really hard to keep a stiff upper lip.' Patients explain difficulties of living without health insurance in new documentary.

Published: Mar. 21, 2019 at 4:11 PM CDT
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  • The KSLA original documentary “Chronically Heal” will air Thursday, April 11 at 6:30 p.m. on KSLA News 12.
  • Be the first to watch! The film and additional videos are available to stream now on the KSLA Roku and Amazon Fire TV channels. Click here to learn more.

SHREVEPORT, LA (KSLA) - On a chilly afternoon at the end of February, Wendy Ordoñez is in the kitchen preparing dinner. A gas-powered space heater warms the dining room and the stove heats the kitchen as she prepares kale and tomatoes in a skillet alongside a pot of beans that have been cooking all day.

Ordoñez didn’t always cook meals like this. She used to eat most of her food from a can. But after being diagnosed with high blood pressure and anemia, she started making better choices.

That diagnosis didn’t come easy, however. Ordoñez doesn’t have health insurance.

"I had no way to pay for a doctor to see me so I was just going untreated,” said Ordoñez. “It probably had been about seven or eight years, the last time I had seen a doctor was when I was pregnant with my son.”

Ordoñez, 45, is one of the thousands of people in our community who are living without health insurance, a situation that’s becoming more difficult as health care costs continue to rise. She shared her story in the new KSLA original documentary, “Chronically Heal.”

“I would just show up at the emergency room and get those bills in and try to pay a little here and a little there,” Ordoñez explained.

According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, U.S. health care spending grew 3.9 percent in 2017. As a country, Americans spent $3.5 trillion on health care that year, which averages out to $10,739 per person.

Left to face the problem on her own, Ordoñez would have had an expensive bill to pay. But the MLK Health Center and Pharmacy, a Shreveport nonprofit that provides free health care to uninsured patients with chronic conditions, gave her the care she needed to get better.

The half-hour documentary explores the ongoing challenges to accessing health care through the eyes of patients like Ordoñez and Karen Chelette.

Chelette, 56, returned to truck driving about five years ago, a job she initially had in her early twenties. She realized later, however, that getting in and out of a big rig was accelerating the deterioration in her knees. She soon found herself working less, and applying for Medicaid.

“I got on Medicaid and I was like, 'Great, at least I have something,” recalls Chelette.

It wasn’t long before she had to stop working altogether, however, so she applied for disability benefits. But getting on disability came with a catch.

“When I got the amount of income they were going to give me, it was $14 too much per month for me to keep the Medicaid.”

Chelette accepted her disability benefits and, with no way to pay for private insurance, became uninsured.

Although it could be worse for Chelette — she becomes eligible for Medicare in May — she still was in a tenuous situation.

“I knew there was a six month period where I wasn’t going to have any kind of medical [insurance],” explained Chelette. “I would have just gotten medications that I absolutely knew I had to have and the ones that weren’t as important to me being okay, I guess maybe lay off them. I didn’t see any other options. I was just crossing my fingers and hoping I’d make it to May.”

Chelette says not having health insurance and battling a chronic condition also affected her mental health.

“When you can’t do anything or go anywhere, you can’t move forward because of your physical disabilities, it’s really hard to keep a stiff upper lip," she said.

Patients featured in the documentary also share their difficulties in finding a way to afford prescription medication.

Deloris Tucker, 64, was working at Caddo Parish Head Start when complications from diabetes put her in the hospital. The doctors told her she would have to start doing dialysis multiple times per week to survive, so she had to quit her job.

“I was in denial, and I needed help to pay for my medication because I no longer worked,” said Tucker. “The medicine is so high. One pill I take is $200, and the insulin is like $400 or $500 just for four pens.”

According to GoodRX, a company whose website tracks information on drug pricing and provides pricing data to the public, the average price of the most popular medications rose 6 percent from 2017 to 2018. Among the highest increases were diabetes drugs, which rose 15 percent last year, according to their research.

“People legitimately cannot afford to get their medications filled. If they did, they wouldn’t eat,” says Dr. Dana Clawson, dean of the College of Nursing and School of Allied Health at Northwestern State University.

Louisiana expanded Medicaid coverage in 2016 which allowed more than 400,000 people to enroll in Medicaid and gain coverage, according to state data. HealthInsurance.org says that the number of uninsured Louisianans dropped by 50 percent from 2013 to 2017, thanks in part to the Medicaid expansion and the Affordable Care Act.

Janet Mentesane, the executive director of the MLK Health Center, says expanded coverage is a good thing, but there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding those laws and programs.

“First it was everybody is insured or now that we’ve expanded Medicaid, everybody who wasn’t insured is on Medicaid,” Mentesane said in an interview for the documentary. “There’s always going to be somebody who is falling through the cracks for some reason or just needs some temporary help."

Jordan Ring, the director of strategic partnerships for the clinic, echoed that sentiment.

“Just because you have Medicaid coverage, doesn’t mean you have a doctor that will actually accept that Medicaid,” said Ring. “There have been a lot of people who have come onto the Medicaid system but still have no access to a doctor.”

The KSLA original documentary, “Chronically Heal,” airs April 11 at 6:30 p.m. on KSLA News 12 and is available to stream now on Roku and Amazon Fire TV.

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