A Local Healthcare Story

Sherry Fortin sat leaning against a mailbox outside Pinocchio’s in downtown Northampton, knitting a winter hat. On the sidewalk lay her finished products: several hats and scarves, which cost $20, mittens, which cost $15, and bracelets, a bargain at only $1.

A colorful sign advertised her wares: “I have diabetes and need medication. $1 donation for a bracelet. I can knit anything you want, and will take orders.”

Sherry, 45, has had type 2 diabetes for 18 years. She is supposed to take insulin and prescription pills everyday to manage her blood sugar. Diabetic coma and death, along with minor symptoms such as dizziness, nausea and extreme sweating can result from blood sugar that is either too low or too high.

Sherry has not taken insulin or pills since July though. The medicine requires a $30 monthly co-pay through Mass Health, a state program, making it seem more like a luxury than a necessity, as Sherry is more concerned with having enough to eat.

Someone with a steady income would not expose themselves to such serious health risks, but Sherry has been out of work for over a year. On good days she makes about $20 selling her knitted products. “I can’t afford it right now,” she said.

Sherry said she is hooked on cigarettes and admits she drinks too much Pepsi.

Sherry epitomizes what is wrong with America’s health care system, according to Gloria DiFulivo, a professor in UMass Amherst’s Public Health Department.

DiFulivo said if Sherry had insurance she would have preventive care that “would be way cheaper” than dealing with more serious problems later.

DiFulivo provided some figures to make her case: America spends $174 billion a year in health expenses related to diabetes, yet it’s estimated 80 percent of Type 2 Diabetes- by far the more common type- could be prevented through lifestyle changes. These changes include a proper diet, physical exercise and stopping smoking, which are all easier when one has a supportive doctor and comprehensive health insurance.

Even though Sherry has no health insurance, the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, passed by Congress in 1986, ensures hospitals must provide her emergency care. Living with diabetes and without access to medication is dangerous, and Sherry has required hospitalization several times. Since she can’t pay, the federal government partially reimburses the hospital, which covers the rest of the bill by charging health insurance companies more. The companies then pass along their higher costs to everyone else in the form of higher premiums, which have risen 119 percent in the last decade, according to the Commonwealth Fund.

“People ask ‘How are we going to pay to cover them [uninsured people]?’” said DiFulivo. “Well who do you think is covering them now”?

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Editor’s note:

Every rich nation except the U.S. provides universal health care. In Amherst on Nov. 10, a folk concert to benefit the grassroots campaign for single-payer universal health care will be held at 7 p.m. at North Congregational Church, 1199 N. Pleasant St.

The concert will feature folk singers Tracy Grammer and Jim Henry, Charlie King www.charlieking.org, Pat and Tex LaMountain, Jay Mankita, Annie Patterson, Sarah Pirtle, and Roger Tincknell.

There will also be brief remarks by Benjamin Day, director of Mass-Care, and Kate Atkinson, M.D.

The concert is a benefit for the education fund of Mass-Care: The Massachusetts Campaign for Single Payer Health Care www.MassCare.org

Admission is $10 - $25 for adults and $5 for children. Tickets will be sold at the door starting at 6:30 p.m. For questions about the concert call Alice Swift at (413) 253-3197.

Information on national efforts for single-payer health care is at www.uhcan.org

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