As the economy sours, Americans say they're being hit hard by gas bills and housing costs. But there's another big problem: One in four say they're having trouble paying health care bills. That's according to a new poll conducted in Florida and Ohio by NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard School of Public Health.
Jamie Drzewicki, a Florida resident, was hit especially hard. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, it was a shock, but she had health insurance, so she figured her medical costs were covered. She had surgery last year. And then she started getting the bills: $12,000, $40,000 $2,000. Today, Drzewicki owes more than $62,000.
"Well, I don't know everything," she says. "I just know, you know, that I had insurance and it's just not good enough. It wasn't enough."
It turned out that although she had health insurance through her job, there was a limit. Her insurance would pay up to $100,000 a year, but everything over that was billed to her.
Drzewicki says before she got cancer, $100,000 seemed like a lot of coverage.
"Not being greatly educated, it sounded like a lot of money to me, for someone who just needed a mammogram every year and a pap smear and nothing else," she says. "I'm a healthy person. I was a healthy person."
Drzewicki has spiked hair and wears tight jeans and a T-shirt. She's 58, but she looks years younger. She told her story from the small recording studio in the pink house north of Miami where she lives with her husband. They're both musicians who perform in clubs and on cruise ships.
For her day job, which provides insurance, Drzewicki is the activities director at a nursing home. She recently switched jobs because, after her cancer, her boss gave her a hard time about missing work. Now she works at another nursing home. She gets paid less and, because it's much farther away, she spends a lot more on gas.
"I am living paycheck to paycheck," she says. "And I am making the decision between food and my cancer medication. And, I had to put — to buy food — on my Target card 'cause I knew I could pay it off. And my husband killed me. 'Do you know the percentage on that?' 'Honey, I'll pay it off with my next paycheck.' I'll never do that again."
Drzewicki is far from alone. In polling by NPR, Kaiser and Harvard, 28 percent of people in Florida say they're having trouble paying their medical bills. They're not the uninsured people you might think.
"They're people with health insurance, but it's not covering the co-pays, the deductibles, some of the drug costs, the dental care that may be needed, the home services," says Robert Blendon, who runs polling programs for the Harvard School of Public Health. "It's not deep enough to protect people."
Blendon says one of the biggest surprises from the poll is that one in five people in Florida, and one in four in Ohio, say they've got collection agencies chasing them. The No. 1 reason is unpaid medical bills.
"The idea that middle-income people will be pursued by collection agencies, for many people, is not something they ever would have thought would happen to them," he says.
People like Jamie Drzewicki.
"So they call my house, two, three times a night," she says. "And the last collection agency guy said, 'Well, you know, we're going to have to send it to the lawyers now.'"
One part of the hospital is helping her apply for charity care — but so far, she hasn't been eligible. Another office, in the same hospital, called in the collection agency.
"And the harassment has been part of my stress while I'm trying to recover, no joke," she says.
She's got new insurance from her new job. There's one more surgery ahead: In August, for breast reconstruction. But she's pushed it back a few days because she's got a gig, in a 2,000-seat theater in a Florida retirement community.
"Yeah, I'm going to be at Wynmoor Village," she says.
It's her first performance since the cancer. What Drzewicki loves most in the world is to sing.
"What can I sing?" she says. "I sing: 'What a day this has been. What a rare mood I'm in. Why it's almost like being in love. Ahhhh! He's comin' down.'"