Story by: Sara Thompson on February 2, 2023
It’s an all-too-common experience — lack of quality health insurance, a chronic illness and mounting bills set off a chain of bad luck and a financial struggle.
The trouble started in the spring of 2022.
“I started feeling burning in my arms, shoulders and fingers. Just excruciating pain,” said Thomas Williams, 55, of West Louisville.
Thomas, a cabinetmaker by trade, thought it was an overuse injury from work. But as the pain worsened, he sought care in at an emergency room.
“They couldn’t tell me what it was, so they sent me home,” he said.
The following two weekends had Thomas back at the ER, hoping to find answers and relieve the pain, which continued to get worse. He left with no answers and a hefty bill that he couldn’t pay.
“I racked up about $12,000 for those three weekends,” Thomas said.
Thomas’ employer did not offer health insurance. Though Thomas’s wife, Sheree, was employed full time as an administrative assistant at a rehabilitation facility, the cost of adding her husband to her policy was too expensive for the couple. For the month of April, Thomas didn’t work, and they paid out of pocket for doctor’s visits and tests, trying to find out what was wrong.
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Finally, in May 2022, Crystal D. Narcisse, M.D., an internal medicine physician with Norton Community Medical Associates’ primary care Hurstbourne location, helped determine that Thomas has rheumatoid arthritis. The chronic inflammatory condition can affect the joints as well as skin, eyes, blood vessels, lungs and the heart. While getting some answers was a relief, Thomas and Sheree’s focus turned to paying for rheumatology care and costly prescriptions that can ease pain and protect joints from further damage.
Thomas then went back to work, but only for a month. In another stroke of bad luck, his employer shuttered its operations in early summer 2022. Even if the company had remained in business, Thomas would have struggled.
“I’m a cabinetmaker, so I work with my hands,” Thomas said.
With rheumatoid arthritis, he could no longer grip tools to do the work. And with no income, he stopped filling prescriptions or following up with doctor visits.
Thomas and Sheree were maxing out credit cards, cashing in retirement funds and draining their savings to pay bills and copays and keep the household afloat.
“We don’t qualify for Medicaid,” Thomas said. “On paper, we make too much money.”
Rheumatoid arthritis has had a profound impact on Thomas’s life. He gets tired easily and deals with chronic pain.
“I can’t sleep very well, because my shoulders hurt; my hips hurt,” he said.
Maybe the worst part is not being active with his 22 grandchildren.
“I can’t pick them up anymore. I love to take them fishing, camping. But I can only sit on the sidelines now,” he said.
He enjoys watching his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers play, but has to sit in Sheree’s tall hairdressing chair.
“I can’t get up out of my recliner or off the couch,” Thomas said. “It’s too low.”
Last fall, Dr. Narcisse helped connect Thomas with the Institute for Health Equity, a Part of Norton Healthcare, which facilitates access to quality health care for everyone in the community, regardless of race, gender or any other influence in their lives. Dr. Narcisse also serves as one of three community medical directors with the institute who help improve community access to health care.
Initially, Thomas’ income was too high for Norton Healthcare’s financial assistance program. But the program recently expanded to cover those making 350% of the federal poverty limit, putting its benefits within reach of more middle-income patients.
It wasn’t long before Michelle Jones, a coordinator at the Institute for Health Equity, contacted Thomas to encourage him to apply under the expanded eligibility rules.
Thomas said he’s been approved for the help and is feeling more hopeful than he has in a year. He hopes to join the YMCA, where he can take part in water activities to ease his aching joints. He and Sheree are planning to start a nutrition program as well.
“All those things I dreamed about, wished for — now I can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
As Thomas’s financial struggles appear to be improving, his luck may be improving as well. Thomas was in front of his house on a recent January day when he spotted something fluttering in the wind against the wheel of his truck. It was a $20 bill.
At Norton Healthcare and Norton Children’s, families receiving hospital-based emergency or other medically necessary care may qualify for financial assistance if their income is equal to or less than 350% of the federal poverty level. The benefit is also available for prescriptions filled at a Norton Healthcare retail pharmacy.
You may qualify for free or discounted emergency or medically necessary care if you meet all of the following criteria:
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