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Fearing coverage loss, two Whatcom families tell how Obamacare helped

Bellingham resident Lauren Beven pushes son Tristan Wypych in a swing at Elizabeth Park in May. Now 2 1/2 years old, the boy is recovering from a rare brain and spinal cancer. The family is worried about losing the pre-existing condition protection under the Affordable Care Act.
Bellingham resident Lauren Beven pushes son Tristan Wypych in a swing at Elizabeth Park in May. Now 2 1/2 years old, the boy is recovering from a rare brain and spinal cancer. The family is worried about losing the pre-existing condition protection under the Affordable Care Act. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

As Republicans move to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, two Whatcom County families share how the health insurance measure helped them as they lived through the dark hours of illness.

Uncertain about Republican plans, they worry about what kind of health care they’ll be able to get in the future and explain how they could be hurt if the measure is repealed.

Perry Eskridge

As a lifelong Republican, Perry Eskridge hated Obamacare – until it saved his life without bankrupting his family.

Nervous about the Trump administration and Republican plans for dismantling the federal health care measure – what they will replace it with isn’t yet known – Eskridge and others are sharing their stories about how the Affordable Care Act helped them.

Eskridge said he has taken a lot of heat from fellow Republicans for doing so.

“I keep trying to tell everybody. This is not a Republican or Democrat issue,” the 48-year-old Ferndale resident said. “This is an American issue. We’re talking about people here. We can’t be winners or losers in this legislation. We all have to win.”

Eskridge, government affairs director for the Whatcom County Association of Realtors, doesn’t have insurance through an employer.

He and his wife were relatively healthy, he said, so the insurance they bought for themselves was a bare-bones health plan known as a catastrophic plan. His wife needed medicine for a chronic condition, but they were able to buy it in Canada for about $200 a month.

Like others who bought their own health insurance, Eskridge was unhappy when Obamacare went into effect and their monthly premiums jumped – going from about $500, to $600, then up to $950.

They also were stunned by the deductible and out-of-pocket increases for their health insurance under Obamacare.

“We were like, ‘Holy cow,’ ” he said, adding that they make too much money to qualify for tax credits to help pay for their premiums.

Then in July 2015, Eskridge went to the doctor for what he thought was a pulled muscle in his side. He looked pale, so his doctor gave him a blood test – and a week later he was at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle getting chemotherapy for an aggressive and rare leukemia.

Without treatment, he was told, he would have had six weeks to live. Eskridge had no idea he was even sick.

It cost nearly $3 million to save his life – for chemotherapy, a complete bone marrow transplant and to treat a lung hemorrhage in September 2015, a complication that required hospitalization for a month at a cost of $850,000.

But he’s on the other side of the illness, for now.

“It’s the best care money can buy,” Eskridge said. “Thank God, I had it.”

So, when he hears talk of repealing the Affordable Care Act, he gets nervous.

You can’t just throw it all out, because that’s not going to work. The impacts are very real and they can be devastating for people.

Perry Eskridge, Ferndale resident and Republican, talking about Obamcare

He fears losing certain benefits provided by the measure – such as the protection from being denied health insurance because he has a pre-existing condition, such as cancer.

If that’s removed, insurance companies will either deny him coverage or charge such high premiums he wouldn’t be able to afford insurance anyway, Eskridge said.

He also wants the ban on lifetime caps on coverage to stay in place. Without that piece of Obamacare, he and his wife would’ve been on the hook for $1 million.

“We would’ve lost everything,” Eskridge said.

He’s also worried about losing the prescription drugs coverage, one of 10 essential benefits required of any health plan under the Affordable Care Act, because his maintenance medication costs $8,000 a month.

Obamacare does have problems, Eskridge said, before adding: “You can’t just throw it all out, because that’s not going to work.”

“The impacts are very real and they can be devastating for people,” he said. “I think it’s important that people know that.”

Tristan Wypych

Eskridge and Bellingham resident Lauren Beven’s toddler, Tristan Wypych, are among the roughly 3 million Washington state residents with pre-existing conditions protected from losing insurance coverage under Obamacare.

They also were among those whose stories were shared with legislators about how the measure has helped them.

Among those legislators are Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, and Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Washington, who did a seven-stop Affordable Care Act tour of the 2nd Congressional District, including in Bellingham, to answer questions and report back to the Republican-controlled Congress.

Murray is the top Democrat on the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Larsen said more than 400 people have shared their stories. He also met with the representatives of 18 health organizations.

“At my town hall in Mountlake Terrace, I told my constituents that the Affordable Care Act is not dead yet,” Larsen said. “There is plenty of fight left to be had before repeal takes place, and I am more ready than ever for that fight.”

For their part, Republican lawmakers have said they want to retain the part of Obamacare that bans insurers from denying insurance to those with pre-existing conditions.

Beven, 34, and husband Matthew Wypych, 38, fear the loss of that protection.

Their son Tristan was 18 months old when he was diagnosed in December 2015 with a rare brain and spinal cancer. A week later, they learned she was pregnant with their second child, Naomi.

It’s unthinkable to me that anyone could dismantle the pre-existing condition clause. It’s a scary thought for the country.

Bellingham resident Lauren Beven

Beven had to quit her job as an ESL instructor at Whatcom Community College to move to Seattle for eight months while Tristan, who was still breast-feeding, received treatment at Seattle Children’s. That meant switching the family from her health insurance to her husband’s, which the family wouldn’t have been able to do if not for the pre-existing condition benefit – and that would have caused a cascade of financial hardships.

Otherwise, keeping the insurance to ensure Tristan’s treatment would’ve required Beven to stay at her job.

“My husband would have had to give up his job in order to move to Seattle with Tristan, which would have resulted in us giving up our house,” she said.

“Alternatively, if we had had to cover costs of Tristan’s treatment ourselves, we would never have been able to cover the daily proton radiation treatment he received for a month and a half, which was essential to his overall treatment of cancer. This treatment costs over $6,000 each day,” Beven added.

And if they have to change insurance plans in the future, they fear their now 2 1/2-year-old son won’t be covered.

“Without the pre-existing condition coverage in 2017 and beyond, any change to our insurance provider will result in no coverage for Tristan’s future medical needs, which will devastate our family financially,” she said.

Their son requires regular MRI scans of his brain and spine to monitor his recovery. His most recent scan in January cost $17,000, and that didn’t include associated costs including general anesthesia.

Beven was among the thousands to take part in the Women’s March in Bellingham on Jan. 21. She thought about the message she wanted on her sign and settled on “A mother’s right: health care for her children.”

Their son has stabilized. His hair has grown back. The feeding tube that went down his nose and into his stomach was removed recently. He looks healthy and strong.

“It’s unthinkable to me that anyone could dismantle the pre-existing condition clause,” Beven said. “It’s a scary thought for the country.”

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

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