A Cancer Survivor's Anxiety Soars After Losing Health Insurance

August 5, 2020

Even though I knew I was eligible for COBRA and that it would come into effect soon, my anxiety soared and grew as the days progressed. I told anybody who would listen that a cancer survivor in the time of COVID cannot be without insurance for even a second.

Recently, I was without health insurance for a few weeks. I knew I was eligible for COBRA and that this would come into effect soon. Even if insurance is retroactively reinstated as soon as first payments for COBRA are processed, though, I still ended up in a panic. The "what-ifs" were plentiful. What if I fell into a coma? What if I ended up in the ER with bills that needed to be redone (paperwork hell) once COBRA went into effect? What if I was going to be the first person ever whose COBRA fell through for no reason?

My anxiety soared. It got higher as the days progressed. I started to lose sleep. I told anybody who would listen that a cancer survivor in the time of COVID cannot be without insurance for even a second. For me, the promise of insurance was not enough. I wanted the real deal. Impatient, I wished that the transition from regular insurance to COBRA could be as seamless as a lymphedema sleeve.

After losing sleep for some days, drinking herbal tea and doing crossword puzzles to keep myself calm, I tried to regain perspective. I took walks and read mystery novels and worked in the yard. At one point, I let myself sob. What was this? It was not as if insurance was not in the wings, waiting to make its dramatic entrance at any moment. I just wanted that moment the way a child wants something: right now.

I think the source of my anxiety revolved around two main factors. First, I like to dot my i's and cross my t's and then finish off any deal with an embossed seal. Second, and more important, I am not fond of uncertainty. I can handle almost anything, good news or bad (or worse), yet that limbo before an anticipated outcome can be nerve-wracking. As much as I try to maintain perspective and act all Zen, I am human.

Maybe my anxiety was also related to flashbacks of the medical bills that come with a cancer diagnosis. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I did have a few panicky moments regarding insurance. At that time, I had opted for a high-deductible HSA (health savings account) plan that seemed perfect for me, a healthy specimen of a middle-aged woman. Each month, I saved for the future. Being who I am (see previous paragraph), I planned for a rainy day or major storm I hoped to avoid. Then the hurricane, rather cancer, arrived.

Since I was diagnosed later in the year, I had saved enough for bills and felt okay about the prospect of astronomical bills (anything to keep me alive). Then, although everybody meant well, somebody got me in a dither by commenting that I needed better insurance when it came time for us to select the new year's plan. "You need the Cadillac of insurance," she said. Did I? A few months into cancer treatment, bills sucking my HSA dry but insurance kicking in to take up the slack, I wondered.

So, I did some research. A friend asked a friend to compare my plan with the so-called Cadillac of plans. The friend's friend, an MBA I hardly knew, wrote a kind and meticulously researched email, with every concern addressed. Along with this validation that my high-deductible plan would get me through, I called my insurance company for advice.

A real concern was coverage. Because my oncologist had ordered a PET scan, but insurance would not approve it, I worried that cheap insurance was yielding a cheaper product. The representative at my insurance company assured me that I would get the same treatment no matter what plan I had. The company had my back. Then another friend helped me do some creative accounting so I could front-load my health savings as the new year rolled around, with these health savings being exhausted almost immediately.

Taking care of finances while going through cancer treatment can be daunting, even when a person is privileged, as I am, to have insurance and health savings. One thing you realize during this process is how essential insurance is. While a healthy person can go almost a whole lifetime with few medical expenses, catastrophic expenses are possibly around the corner for everyone. This is why I felt sublime when COBRA materialized and a new insurance card arrived in the mail. Two days later, I fell and broke my wrist.


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