In the Great Recession, Even Death Is Too Expensive for the Poor


Written by Sanjay Basu

Rita is only in her 30s, but she knows all about death. What she didn’t know until recently is how expensive it is, especially now in the Great Recession, for the poor to die.

Rita’s parents, her only relatives in the U.S., died in a car crash during her sophomore year in community college. Rita dropped out of school to earn a living as a shipping coordinator at a Bay Area package company. A few years later, she found herself coughing and coughing. She was always short of breath. Tests revealed that Rita had a rare and fatal disease of unknown origin–one that leads to the slow closure of the blood vessels feeding the lungs. She will suffocate to death before the age of 40.

“I know the end is coming,” she tells her doctor and nurses; after many meetings with her chaplain, she is, she says, “at peace.” At the medical clinic in San Francisco’s General Hospital, Rita tells anyone who will listen that she has two goals. She wants to continue living with her cat in her one bedroom apartment in the Mission District of San Francisco. And she hopes to continue receiving the few medications that mitigate her symptoms.

There are currently more than 1.2 million Americans like Rita who are facing a terminal illness. The health care providers who treat them routinely have to ask: How do you wish to die? Some of the dying–wanting to keep death at bay–repeatedly ask to participate in the latest pharmaceutical trials. Others have drawn up a “bucket list” of adventures for their final days. But more people have two simpler requests: to die at home instead of in a hospital, and to eat a decent last meal.

In this recession, even these simplest last wishes have become nearly impossible for many to fulfill.

Two years ago, Rita fainted on the job. Her boss had noticed her diminishing level of performance; he said that Rita was just too winded to work. Unemployed, she initially received disability coverage. But like the other eight million Americans unable to work because of illness, she was required to apply for a continuation of benefits after one year.

Rita’s problem–the clinic’s social worker explained–is that like most young people who are ill, Rita is dying too young to have paid significantly into Social Security. This meant Rita would receive “Supplemental Security Income” (SSI): $830 a month and California’s Medi-Cal insurance.

Initially, Rita thought she could stretch these funds. She would have to give away her cat and move into a studio apartment–something smaller and cheaper than the average studio in San Francisco. She would also buy food in bulk, saving at least $200 a month for her prescription co-payments.

But the politics of budget cuts stifled her plans. Over 65 percent of SSI claims have been denied during the recession, a record high number. A series of the governments reviewers of her case interrogated Rita, and one without any medical training misinterpreted her medical chart. Despite the fact that Rita had “pulmonary arterial hypertension”–severely increased pressure in her lungs–he wrote that Rita suffered from run-of-the-mill high blood pressure. Rita was denied.

The clinic’s social workers tried to intervene. They were told that Rita would now have to wait for an “appeals hearing” after 90 days–possibly longer that she had left to live. She would be without income for her last months of life.

Due to new state budget cuts, Rita’s Medi-Cal coverage was also limited to six medications. Her doctors had to decide which pills they could take away without suffocating her immediately–a deadly guessing game since there is not enough research to guide doctors in forecasting a regimen.

When clinic workers discussed the dilemma, Rita joked: “I should have been a banker instead of an ordinary taxpayer. Then I could have been bailed out.”

Rita lost her apartment. She slept for a few weeks on an ex-boyfriend’s couch, until he threw her out, suspecting her cough was from an infectious disease. She had signed up for welfare, at the usual rate of $422 per month plus food stamps. But without an address, the only way to get a roof over her head was the City’s “care not cash” program for the homeless–$59 a month, and a shelter bed.

Rita’s inhalers were stolen on her first night in the shelter. Her shoes were stolen on the second night. So she began to sleep in the parks, her symptoms worsening. Finally her doctors convinced her to check in to the hospital.

In the hospital, Rita was stoic. Her face had assumed the tough sheen of ceramic.

When a social worker asker her whether she would be willing to modify her plans, let the clinic find her a hospice bed, Rita said she had written it all down. She couldn’t discuss her thoughts with any more clarity. And besides, going over her problems would only make her cry. And crying made it difficult to breathe.

This post was originally published by New America Media.


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Romney: People With Preexisting Conditions Trying to Game the System


Photo from alex@faraway via flickr


Sonny Honrado
Sonny Honrado5 years ago

I agree. But there are ways to cut the expenses.

Muriel C.
Muriel C5 years ago

Karen, When the Recession started, California lopped of all of the SSI it used to pay me, which made me unable to continue paying for rent and food.
I moved 1/2 way across the world to be able to stretch my SSDI $742 per month.
So what did the SSA do? They pretended never receiving my cancellation of Medicare insurance, and are lopping off $100 a month to pay for Medicare (which doesn't cover me at all abroad). In essence, the SSA is robbing me legally while refusing to do what it is paid to do by all the US tax payers (including me, before I became disabled). No use for me to re-apply for Medicare cancellation, (I did but the local US Consulate has yet to respond).
Yet, I'm lucky: my condition isn't deadly (just disabling) and I became disabled before the recession. Furthermore, the foreign government -which owes me nothing since I never paid any tax here and I'm not even a citizen- is gifting me with a medical coverage only Congress member get in the US.

Debbie L.
Debbie Lim5 years ago

So very tragic. Since when do people have to be so troubled just to wait for their deaths. No one deserves to be deprived of their simple last wishes before their deaths.

Lin Moy
Lin M5 years ago

it's sad but this happens to often anymore. Drs. can't be Drs. anymore for Gov. interferance. You can't even afford to die anymore. Insurance is a scam but you have to have it anyway.

John Kramer
John Kramer5 years ago

It would be a good idea if Massachusetts legalized prostitution. All that tax revenue from legalized prostitution could be used to help the dying poor.

Karen Pyles
Karen p5 years ago

Atrocity. The disability program needed to come through for her. If this is what our system does to people, then the people deserve to have the option of euthanasia. Her suffering is unimaginable. Wonder why Aunts, Uncles and cousins, etc are not helping. This is truly sad.

Geraldine Ley
Geraldine Ley5 years ago

Her plight is heartbreaking and a sad indictment of the world today where politicains, in the pockets of and profiting from big business, are endorsing survival of the fittest and richest. Why are these people and those that vote for them so against a social healthplan such as the NHS in Britain? It has its faults but nobody is turned away in their hour of need.

Sylvia M.
Sylvia M5 years ago

This cannot be our America.

Sara R.
Sara Reyna-Byler5 years ago

I would be interested in followup on this - is there something we can organize to help Rita die with dignity (and her cat)?

Following the links to find contact info for Dr. Basu has yielded nothing.

Christine C.
Chandra C5 years ago

So sad