Cant Afford Illness in America

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I had become too sick to live in America.

Even with private insurance, even with Medicare, we couldn't keep up with our medical bills. So we found a country where we could, and we left.

Picture this: A childless, middle-aged couple both gainfully employed, both college educated, living a frugal but happy life, and the husband gets sick with an incurable chronic illness. The sick husband has to quit work because the illness is very serious. But, not to worry, after four long years and a legal battle, he gets on Social Security Disability and therefore qualifies for Medicare. There is also the added security of the wife's health insurance to cover the expensive prescriptions and everything else Medicare doesn't. Everything will be fine because they are insured, and they will continue to live a happy yet frugal life in spite of the chronic illness. Or will they?

In the fall of 2002, my wife and I found ourselves in the position of not being able to afford my illness. I was afflicted with an incurable illness called Fibromyalgia Syndrome, a pain, and fatigue disorder that eventually leaves most of those afflicted unable to work. The decrease in my income plus the 10 prescriptions I took (not counting the drugs my wife had to take) to try to help control my illness's symptoms were breaking us financially. Though we were insured, we could no longer afford to fund my illness. The co-pays, deductibles, and non-covered expenses were eating away at our financial security, bite after bite.

We found a sort of bitter consolation in the fact that we were not alone in our plight. It turns out that more than 50% of bankruptcies filed in 2001 were medically related and were middle-class homeowners who not only had an income but also health insurance. The prevailing myth that most bankruptcies are related to credit card debt is not true. Less than 1% of filed bankruptcies are due to credit card debt.

Researchers found that in those surveyed, 1.9 to 2.2 million U.S. residents filed a "medical bankruptcy." The average person filing for bankruptcy during the 2001 period spent $13,460 on co-payments, deductibles, and uncovered services even though they had private insurance.

"Our study is frightening. Unless you're Bill Gates, you're just one serious illness away from bankruptcy. Most of the medically bankrupt were average Americans who happened to get sick. Health insurance offered little protection," said Dr. David Himmelstein, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who led the study.

Another one of the study's authors, Elizabeth Warren, said, "It doesn't take a medical catastrophe to create a financial catastrophe. A larger share of American workers are going to have insurance that's like a paper umbrella. It looks good, and it might even protect you in a sprinkle, but it melts away in a downpour."

In the fall of 2002, we began to feel the sprinkle on our paper umbrella turn into an unstoppable downpour. We had to do something before the full brunt of the downpour tore the paper umbrella to shreds and our lives along with it. We began to look to other alternatives to purchase our prescription drugs and found them. Little did we suspect how our search for more affordable prescriptions would not only find us financial relief but also end up changing our lives.

We heard rumors that prescriptions drugs were cheaper in Canada and Mexico. Our research showed this was indeed true. But this, to be honest, was a scary proposition. I also read that the U.S. government was trying to shut down many of the web sites through which you could order these drugs. That's all I needed--get arrested for smuggling drugs through the U.S. Mail Service! Many Americans who live in border towns simply cross the border to get a prescription filled at substantially lower prices with no hassles. Moving to a border town was not what we wanted to do. But what did catch my eye was that in Mexico not only were the prices of prescription drugs--the same ones I took in the U.S.--cheaper but so was just about everything else!

Digging deeper we discovered there was a large population of American expatriates already living in Mexico, around 500,000, taking advantage of affordable and reliable medical care plus a significantly lower cost of living. This was a stunning revelation to us. Moving to Mexico hadn't been a remote possibility; now it appeared to be salvation.

Our reality began on August 1, 2003, when we stepped off the plane in Leon, Guanajuato, to begin our new lives in a small, colonial town (the capital city of the state) called Guanajuato.

We stepped into a new reality where everything; prescription drugs, housing, utilities, food, transportation, entertainment, is 25-75% less than it is in America. My Social Security Disability income more than adequately covers our expenses here in Guanajuato, Mexico. An example is that I can buy all my needed prescriptions for less than the co-pay I forked over for one drug in the United States! I get a month of Prozac for less than $16.00 usd. Same drugs, only affordable! Can you believe that?

Moving to Mexico--an alternative for everyone? I doubt it. But it is working for us on so many levels that we have no plans anytime soon to return to the land of our birth.

The solution? I don't know. What I do know is that we, and many other Americans, cannot sit idly by waiting for our elected officials to work it out. We had to taken action--drastic as it was. That paper umbrella won't last long!

Doug Bower is a freelance writer and book author. His most recent writing credits include The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Houston Chronicle, and The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Transitions Abroad. He lives with his wife in Guanajuato, Mexico.

His new book Mexican Living: Blogging it from a Third World Country can be seen at

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