Kim and Kerry Olson — San Leandro, California

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Kim and Kerry Olson have had a downhill paddle through the swamps and sloughs of the American health care system since Kim got seriously ill seven years ago. They are surviving, barely, because they have learned to navigate the system, at least on its surface. But they are one bad break away from living on the street. They think it’s time for a change in California’s health care delivery system.

Kim, 57, and Kerry, 58, met in Visalia years ago, and moved to San Leandro, where they now live. Kim was a salesman for a Fremont lumber company and Kerry managed the apartments in which they lived. Life was relatively smooth until seven years ago, when Kim turned 50. He was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.

The ailment rendered Kim 100 percent disabled. The Olsons were able to get regular SSI disability checks of $1330 a month, but it wasn’t even close to being enough to live on. Kim’s former boss, who Kerry describes as "a wonderful man," paid his premiums for as long as he could, but eventually the Olsons had to pick up that as well. Kerry has fibromyalgia and post-polio syndrome and could not find work. He of course was unemployable. She held on to the apartment manager job because it gave them free rent.

Not long after that Kim developed colon cancer. By now his medical needs were great, especially prescription drugs for his heart condition. But how could he pay for them? The last year he was covered by Kaiser he reached the cap on what they would pay for drugs by May. He reached the CalWorks cap four months later.

Kim and Kerry ran through their 401K just to meet their daily needs. Three years go Kerry dropped Kaiser in order to apply that premium money to Kim’s medical needs. Finally, Kim, too, had to drop Kaiser two years ago, chiefly because of a lack of continued access to medications. "He was pulling his hair out," Kelly says. "It got to the point where if he didn’t have the medicine he was going to die." And he couldn’t afford the medicine.

The Olsons bounced around from hospital to clinic, from this program to that program – MediCal, Medicare, SSI, CalWorks. They went to Fairmont Clinic, near where they live. Health care delivery became for them a slog through a labyrinth, a routine of patching things together. Then Fairmont, another victim of the state’s health care crisis, closed. It made life even more difficult for the Olsons. "There are other clinics, but they’re farther away, and some of them are a joke," says Kerry. They are traveling these days to Newark Clinic and Highland Hospital, longer trips than Fairmont.

On their journey they have seen people gaming the system. But they refuse to do that. "We look at some of the fraud," she says, "but we’re not made that way. Sometimes I wish my husband’s parents didn’t raise him to be so honest. And my Dad was a cop," she laughs.

Their financial plunge hit them in other ways as well: Their car was repossessed; they filed for bankruptcy.

"What is amazing is how (Kim) didn’t have a heart attack with all the problems of how are we going to pay for all of that and then having to cancel his health plan. So here we are, trying to stay alive and trying to not go ballistic. If I didn’t have this job as an apartment manager we’d be out on the street. "

"It’s ludicrous," Kerry adds. "They need to regulate the HMOs for people who can’t afford it. This is real scary. What are we going to do?"

Consumer Watchdog
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