I haven’t been able to get out of bed on my own in nearly two years—and I’m only 28 years old.
For more than a year I was unable to speak, sit up, or eat solid food. In June 2015, first responders wheeled me into the emergency room, too weak to eat, drink, or elevate my head. I had been, essentially, waiting to die of dehydration. Besides administering some much-needed fluids, doctors offered little help.
I have among the most severe cases of chronic fatigue syndrome (sometimes known as myalgic encephalomyelitis, or ME). It’s a devastating multi-system disease that’s been given a patronizing name. The cause is still unknown, which makes getting a proper diagnosis—often necessary for insurance and disability coverage—near impossible.
When I was released from the hospital in 2015, my family learned that California’s state-administered Medicaid health care program, Medi-Cal, would not cover the ambulance ride to transport me home because none of my conditions were considered “legitimate.” I took the ambulance anyway, and paid around $1,500 for the ride out-of-pocket.
Several months later, I became so dehydrated that my family decided to pay more than $150 a day for a nurse to come to our house to administer intravenous saline to keep me alive. Large doses of intravenous saline were, and still are, the only way to keep my body functioning.
My medical care has become a privilege that costs me more than $1,200 a month. In the last year, I spent roughly $73,000 on my health care—more than double my annual income when I was healthy and working full-time.
In the last year, I spent roughly $73,000 on my health care
Historically, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has allotted only a paltry amount of attention and funding—$6 million—to ME research. Some headway has been made in recent years, at least in part because advocacy through the #MillionsMissing campaign has brought the lack of funding to legislators’ attention. In November 2016, the NIH tentatively announced plans to increase research funding for ME to roughly $15 million for fiscal year 2017. But now, with Republicans controlling both Congress and the White House, there has been a change in what was promised. In January the NIH said it will actually decrease funding, allotting $1 million less than in 2016.
The amount is minuscule compared to the funds that the government has at its disposal. The ME community has needed a substantial increase in government funding for decades. More funding would mean more research; more research would mean more biomarkers; and more biomarkers would mean the potential for a diagnostic test. These scientific breakthroughs would mean medical professionals would be able to better understand the disease—and therein lies the solution. This path has potential for the medical establishment and government to compensate for decades of belittling patients who suffer from a devastating disease, finally bringing widespread legitimacy to ME—and relief to millions of patients. That would be real progress.
But it may never happen at all.
Before Donald Trump shocked the world by winning the election, I was hopeful that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) would, in time, be expanded so that more of my medical needs would be covered by insurance. But now, barring a radical turn of events, that seems—at best—highly unlikely.
If the Trump Administration repeals the ACA, even simple treatments—like saline infusions and in-home nurse and doctor visits—will cost egregious amounts of money. My savings account has been zeroed-out, and I receive less than $900 in monthly disability checks. For the past year, my medical expenses alone have been more than $6,000 a month.
The plans that have been floated to replace the ACA do little for people with disabilities or low incomes. A replacement would likely offer a flat credit based on age, and it wouldn’t cover the care I need. It would also dramatically weaken Medicaid, decimating services for people with disabilities and serious illnesses.
It would be unfair to say that the ACA has no room for improvement. But for me—and I imagine for most poor, chronically ill people—it is something to build on, not something to dismantle.
Because what happens next, for us, could be a matter of life or death.