Donna Smith

My Healthcare Story

My husband, Larry, and I have been married for nearly 40 years. We have six children and 15 grandchildren. We are among the millions of Americans who have faced financial ruin due to medical crisis and debt. After my husband faced three open heart surgeries and I was diagnosed with cancer, we were forced into bankruptcy by aggressive medical collectors who threatened to sue us for the deductible portions of our bills even after our health insurance had paid the providers thousands. We tried hard to pay everyone a little bit, but we could not find any way to cover all the bills and pay our other living expenses.

I was especially hurt by the providers who we needed so badly to help us recover and maintain our health who became unwilling to help us when we could not pay deductibles and co-pays up front. Following one trip to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, our insurance company paid $90,000 to cover
all but $6,000 of the bill for my husband’s surgery and follow-up care. We received a letter a few weeks later from Mayo saying that their foundation was going to forgive the $6,000 debt but that if we ever wanted to return for further care, we would need to pay up front any estimated out-of-pocket costs. That effectively ended my husband’s care at this world-renowned facility where our insurance company sent us for care since they had a contractual arrangement with the clinic to provide the specialized care my husband needed.

We were both devastated not only by our illnesses but also by the brutality of the health care system. We had always been as responsible as we could be, and we never went without health insurance. Each year, we would choose the plan that seemed best for our family. But we finally lost our home, and it seemed that blow after blow kept coming even as we worked to stabilize our lives and our family.

I struggled not to give up. The demands placed on me to try to access the care we needed, arrange for payment as best we could, and avoid the medical collectors made me depressed, frightened and angry. Friends and even family members backed away from us as they grew weary of hearing the latest trauma. We became isolated and often wondered how or even why we would go on living this way.

Throughout it all, I missed very little work as I knew keeping my job also meant keeping our insurance. In addition to our own financial upheaval, I was so aware and so sad that our illnesses and claims for our care were driving up insurance costs for all of my fellow employees and their families. We hated that. Giving up sometimes seemed like the best option.

In 2007, we were one of only a dozen subjects selected to be featured in Michael Moore’s documentary film, SiCKO. We remind those who ask that we were not in the film because we are unique but just the opposite. Our experience is not unique as so many American families face what we did.

Having our story told helped give us back some of the dignity we had lost through the years. Some people thought we would be paid for being in that film, but we assured them that was not true. No one is paid to be in a documentary like this, and no one gets rich doing so. In our wildest dreams we wondered if some kind person would step up to help, but help did not come in that way.

I testified to the U.S. Congressional House Judiciary Committee about medical bankruptcy, and I began speaking around the country about single-payer health reform. In November of 2007, I boarded a Healthcare-NOW! bus that toured 17 congressional districts in 12 states and showed SiCKO at nearly every stop. We met so many incredible people who had been struggling like my family had been, and we knew that fighting back was the only way to help push for a change that could prevent this kind of

In 2008, I was hired by the California Nurses Association, and my professional life took an incredible turn as I worked with the nurses and helped them advocate for a more just health care system. I lived and worked first in Chicago, my hometown, and then in Washington, D.C., where the Affordable Care Act was being designed, debated and eventually passed.

It was not the policy fix the nurses or I desired, and we made that clear as the process moved along.

I have taken a journey from being someone terribly damaged by the dysfunctional U.S. health care system to being a person who believes we can and must change this system. I have met thousands of people in the 43 states, in Canada and in Australia where I have spoken who want change as much as I do, and meeting those many thousands of people has helped restore our dignity and our faith in others. I now know that the work I do with Healthcare-NOW! and other single-payer advocacy organizations is critical to reaching out to others who are still caught in the struggle (as I still am at times) and building the grassroots army that now can see single-payer as much more than a possibility but as a probability for fixing the broken system.

City/Town: Denver, Colorado
Organization: Health Care for All Colorado