Most days Melissa Huster can’t get out of bed. Her bones hurt and she is depressed. She wants to do things, function normally. But her body is restricting her and there is nothing she can do to stop the pain.
Huster lives in a rural community about six miles from Blackwell. She has been fighting an autoimmune condition all her life. She is single and has no children. Without health insurance, the 45-year-old Huster has struggled to get the care she needs.
“It’s just miserable,” Huster said.
She is one of about 215,000 low-income Oklahomans who will benefit from Tuesday’s historic vote to approve State Question 802 and expand Medicaid starting July 2021. The proposal passed with 50.5% of votes despite long-standing opposition from state leaders. Oklahoma now joins 37 other states that have passed Medicaid expansion.
Next year, Huster will be able to finally get health insurance.
“I feel sick, very sick, and not having insurance, it just leaves you at the bottom to where you don’t, I mean, you absolutely feel like you have no options,” Huster said.
During her early childhood, Huster developed scaly patches on her skin. Doctors told her the patches were due to stress. She was diagnosed with psoriasis.
Her autoimmune disease and complications from it have made it impossible for her to work. Her bones ache and her psoriasis has worsened, appearing all over her body due to psoriatic arthritis.
Past employers have commented on her psoriasis, causing her to struggle with self-esteem.
Her body aches, she is exhausted and can’t sleep properly due to a chronic pain condition called fibromyalgia, which developed due to her autoimmune condition.
“No one else can see that that’s what’s wrong with you. You look normal like you’re physically capable of doing a job or you’re physically capable of doing anything that anybody else can, but you can’t,” Huster said.
When Huster was married, she had insurance under her husband. When they got a divorce she lost her insurance. On top of her physical pain, Huster has also struggled with bouts of depression.
“It puts you in a very dark place when you can’t even afford to make yourself feel better to make it through the day, Huster said.
Huster has been trying to get Social Security disability. However, the lengthy process and urgency of her medical needs caused her to look elsewhere for help.
Huster has been going to Living Water, a faith-based rural community clinic in Blackwell, since December 2016. Living Water provides Huster with the medication she cannot afford and pays for appointments with specialists. However, recent developments have caused Huster to need more than it can provide.
Huster was prescribed painkillers by a doctor outside of the clinic. However, due to the charitable nature of the clinic, Huster was unable to get the pain medication through Living Water. Charitable pharmacies cannot prescribe controlled substances, such as the strong painkillers Huster was prescribed, according to the Oklahoma Pharmacy Board. She was treated with Tylenol for her pain, which has recently caused her to go into kidney failure. She needs to now go to a pain management specialist, which the clinic can’t pay for.
“There’s people that fall through the cracks,” Huster said. “I’m one of those ones.”
Two Jobs Weren’t Enough to Afford Insulin
Oklahoma has the second highest uninsured rate in the nation, at 14.2%, behind only Texas. Medicaid expansion comes at a time when the spiking COVID-19 virus and economic downturn have caused Oklahoma’s unemployment rate to soar from 2.9% in March to 12.6% in May.
Ryan Gerhard worked jobs at Burger King and Jack in The Box. He moved back in with his mother in Lawton. He worked about 60 hours a week, making $8.50 at his full-time job and $7.25 at his part-time job. Despite his efforts, he couldn’t pay for his insulin and found himself in the hospital due to a serious diabetic complication.
The 26-year old’s body doesn’t produce enough insulin to break down sugars. He is a type 1 diabetic. He had been rationing his insulin because of the price. He started throwing up and excessively urinating and had to go to the hospital. His body refused all sugars due to the lack of insulin and he went into ketoacidosis. He didn’t have health insurance, and didn’t have enough money to pay for insulin without it. He was stretching his supply, only taking it when his blood sugar went so high the meter wouldn’t register it.
Just a month before he wound up in the hospital, Gerhard, who also suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and high cholesterol, had been fine. He was on SoonerCare, Oklahoma’s Medicaid program, which provides insurance to people under the age of 19, and was able to purchase what he needed. However, when he turned 19, he was forced to find help elsewhere.
He had to buy insulin out of pocket multiple times.
Gerhard uses both long-lasting and fast-acting insulin. He went to Walgreens to buy about a week’s worth of the fast-acting insulin and learned one bottle cost roughly $500, more than half of his monthly income. He was scared to even ask about the long-lasting form.
“I was terrified and stressing out over how I’m going to get my insulin, how I’m going to pay for all this,” he said.
When he was in the hospital, a friend’s mom told him about Hearts That Care, a free clinic based in Lawton. He was skeptical at first, but decided to give them a shot. When he visited them for the first time, they told him to come back later in the day. When he did, they gave him all the insulin and blood sugar meters he needed. He has been getting his insulin from them ever since.
Next year, Gerhard will be able to get the insulin he needs on his own thanks to Oklahoma’s Medicaid expansion.
“I can get insurance. I don’t have to worry about meds,” Gerhard said. “Won’t have to stress about insulin and anything like that.”
Hoping for ‘A Little Bit of Normal’
Stephanie Beller is stuck. She exists in a $250 electric recliner that her son-in-law purchased on Facebook. She sits in it all day, every day.
She has difficulty breathing due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Though she never smoked, her parents did, and she thinks she may have gotten it from secondhand smoke. She can’t exercise. Her bones are weak, due to a degenerative bone disease. Her inability to exercise due to her medical conditions has caused her weight to reach 450 pounds, putting her at risk for injury.
Beller, 48, is also uninsured. She struggles to get the oxygen and medication that she needs.
“I’m excited it went through,” Beller said of the Medicaid expansion. “I need a lot of stuff that has been pushed aside.”
The last two times she left her house was by ambulance. She doesn’t have a machine that can support her need for high-flow oxygen. The machines that she does have haven’t been serviced because of her lack of finances.
Beller has been disabled since she was 19. She started having severe joint pain. In 2007, a few years after she got married, she lost her Medicaid coverage. The couple’s combined salaries were slightly greater than the income limit.. Her husband received insurance through his job. However, she wasn’t working and therefore didn’t have insurance.
Now, Beller has a host of medical conditions, no insurance and no income. She can’t walk, and can’t breathe without her oxygen machine.
Beller was hospitalized from January to March this year, racking up a bill of over $100,000. They gave her high-flow oxygen, and when she had to leave, she was anxious about losing the oxygen.
“I was afraid I was going to die,” Beller said.
Beller posted about her health and finances on social media. Someone responded and told her about Hearts That Care. Now, she gets her medication there. If she had to pay for her medicine out of pocket, it would cost over $1,000 a month.
Although the clinic has helped Beller, getting there has proven to be a challenge. The clinic gives out appointments in the morning to assess how many people will be seen that day and their needs. Patients are then seen in the evening. Due to the volunteer basis of the clinic, doctors see the patients after their regular jobs, from about 6 to 8 p.m.
Beller lives 38 miles outside of Lawton in the countryside near Fletcher. She can’t afford the gas to drive back and forth, so she has to stay in town all day, putting a strain on her body.
Her health has deteriorated so much, that now her oxygen intake needs are almost more than her air tank can provide. Her bones no longer support her. She struggles to leave the house not only due to her physical health but also her anxiety. She is worried about what could happen to her.
Some of her medical conditions that could have been taken care of if she had insurance earlier are now unfixable.
Beller is in an impossible situation. If she lost weight, maybe her bones would be less at risk for breaking. But if she exercises to lose weight, her bones may break. Years ago, Beller had hopes of getting gastric bypass surgery, a procedure to shrink the stomach. Now it is too late.
“At this point I wasn’t even sure I would be here,” Beller said.
However, she hopes that maybe she will at least be able to get the rehabilitation she needs to walk again.
“I’m hoping that I’m able to walk, I’m able to get some support so that I can get where I can leave the house and have … a little bit of normal,” Beller said.
Use our county- and precinct-level map to explore the trends in voting statewide on State Question 802.