Electricity bill or epilepsy meds? Furloughed worker must choose.
Many workers in the U.S. are one missing paycheck away from financial hardship or worse. A recent survey conducted by GoBankingRates found that 58 percent of Americans have $1,000 or less in savings.
And as the Trump Shutdown enters Day 28, more evidence is emerging that a number of the 800,000 federal workers who have now gone without pay since late December or early January, depending on which agency they work for, are among them.
These workers have housing and car payments and credit card debt – to say nothing of rent, groceries, and utility bills.
And then there are health care costs.
Although most federal workers continue to have health insurance, there are copays and prescription drugs. And there can be confusion, as the Washington Post discovered when it interviewed a woman with Stage 4 cancer who recently was turned away from her regularly scheduled chemotherapy treatment because it wasn’t clear that her insurance plan would cover it.
Increasingly, media reports are focusing on workers who can’t afford their copays or their prescription drugs and in some cases have to choose between expenses.
Kings Floyd, who has muscular dystrophy, is one such worker. In an interview with the Washington online publication DCist, she related how she ran out of epilepsy medication during the early days of the shutdown. She found she wouldn’t be able to afford to refill her prescription, which requires a copay, and also pay for all her other expenses that month; she would have to choose between her epilepsy medication and her electricity bill.
“I was going to pick the prescription, but the electricity bill is automatically withdrawn from my account,” Floyd told DCist. “I ran out of money, basically.”
As a result, she was off of her medication for four days. “It wiped me out,” she says. “It was a headache like you could not imagine, blurry vision, you cannot think in a straight line. Even just tracking down the steps to be able to refill the medication – doing all of this while my brain is functioning at 30 percent is just exhausting.”
In Floyd’s case, she sees the Trump Shutdown’s trickle-down effect. She pays $400 a week out of pocket to five part-time, personal care assistants who take turns visiting her twice a day to help with daily tasks. These five assistants aren’t nurses (nurses are more expensive, and the tasks the personal assistants perform aren’t complicated). Rather, they are students or people with part-time jobs – and now they are losing income.
“It’s not just me that’s not getting the help,” Floyd says. “It’s five people who are getting less of an income, because even though they have nothing to do directly with the government shutdown, they work with someone who does.”
Lynette Gabourel has been a federal employee for 38 years, including 10 years in the Navy. Now she has been furloughed from her job at the International Trade Commission. She told CBS News she is worried about paying for her mortgage and her diabetes medication.
“For this month, I’m good,” she said. But if the shutdown continues into February, she will have to choose between insulin and her mortgage. Her 19-year-old son, Cirian, is helping out, including taking extra shifts at the restaurant where he works.
“It’s making me very emotional because it’s wonderful knowing that I’m loved in this way, but it hurts me as a mom that my son has to pick up extra shifts at his restaurant to help me get medications that before I had no problems paying for,” Gabourel said.
She said she has been enduring shutdowns for years but that this one is so senseless it might be the last straw. “I feel like I’m a pawn in some political game,” she said.
Also worried about the high cost of insulin is Mallory Lorge, who suffers from Type 1 diabetes. Lorge, a furloughed Department of Interior employee who lives in the town of River Falls, Wisconsin, told NBC News that she has two vials of insulin left in her fridge, but she is rationing them because she can no longer afford the $300 copay.
Her blood pressure rose to a high level last week, but she said she felt forced to ignore it. Instead, she went to bed.
“When it gets that high you can go into diabetic ketoacidosis, you can go into a coma,” she said. “I can’t afford to go to the ER. I can’t afford anything. I just went to bed and hoped I’d wake up.”
The timing of a shutdown is never that good, but for Lorge in particular, the timing of this shutdown could not have been worse. This past September, she married a man she adored, and she and her husband had plans to buy a bigger house for a potential family, and she had ambitions to be a park ranger one day.
But shortly after her honeymoon, Lorge, 31, fell ill with double pneumonia and had to be hospitalized for sepsis and respiratory failure. Because her medical condition was complicated by her diabetes, she went on medical leave and put her plans on hold.
Then, on Dec. 22, a double punch landed. The government shut down, and the first of her medical bills arrived. She and her husband were forced to consolidate her debt into a $40,000 loan and she cancelled all of her medical appointments.
“It’s like I’m being held hostage,” she said. “I’ve been a federal employee for six years, and I love it. I don’t get paid much, but I love working for the American people. That the government has put us in this position is like a punch in the gut.”
Quantina Martine is a furloughed hydrologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in New Mexico. Her symptoms have been worsening since October. First there was a terrible pain in her right arm. Now, she has lost so much sensation in her arm that she can’t hold anything. She needs surgery to address a brain condition called a Chiari malformation.
Martine recently participated in a roundtable hosted by freshman U.S. Representative Deb Haaland (D-NM) on the effects of the shutdown on New Mexico. (New Mexico is the second-most affected state in the country, in terms of federal workers per capita who have been furloughed.)
According to a report in the Santa Fe New Mexican, which covered the event, Martine is not sure if the shutdown affects her health insurance. She is covering copays for medical visits and medications, despite not receiving a pay check. And in the last few weeks, she has had to cancel appointments for acupuncture treatments that help relieve nerve pain.
“With the shutdown, I definitely don’t have the money,” she said. “Whatever I have, I have to save for rent or food.”
Haaland was sympathetic.
“I know what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “Sixty percent of Americans have only $500 in the bank that they can use as a slush fund – which you know would never even pay one month of rent. So, it’s affecting us so drastically.”
For a comprehensive look at the Trump Shutdown’s impact, click here. For more resources, check out our Trump Shutdown resource page. And continue to visit Voices for Human Needs as we bring you the latest news on the shutdown.