After her husband leaves for work and her daughters board their school buses, Monique Zimmerman-Stein feels her way down the cluttered hall into the kitchen, trying not to trip over the cats. She struggles to rinse the dishes, to mop the sticky floor. She tries to picture what her girls must look like now that they're 10 and 13. She hasn't been able to see their faces in two years. Her days are long and dark and quiet. Except for the phone. It rings six, 12, 20 times a day. The callers are bill collectors for hospitals, surgery centers, doctors and specialists, all demanding money the family doesn't have.
Zimmerman-Stein and her husband, Gary Stein, have Blue Cross/Blue Shield insurance through Stein's job at the Hillsborough County Health Department. They pay $90 a week for coverage. But the insurance isn't nearly enough.
"I know I won't ever see again. I'm not even asking for that," Zimmerman-Stein said. "I just don't think we should have to deal with constantly being harassed."
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Zimmerman-Stein is 48. She and her two youngest daughters have Stickler's syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that causes joints to dissolve and retinas to detach. Zimmerman-Stein lost her right eye at 16 and now sees only enough light through her left eye to tell night from day. She and her children are constantly in and out of doctors' offices.
Aliyah, 10, almost died at birth and needed a tracheotomy for six years. Dava, 13, has arthritis in her spine and lost the sight in her left eye.
Insurance has been invaluable, said Gary Stein, 52. But it covers only 80 percent of most bills. The family is left to foot the balance.
The coverage would be adequate if they had only minor medical concerns, but their conditions require expensive tests, treatments and medications. In the last decade, they have racked up a half-million dollars in bills not covered by insurance.
They took out a second mortgage on their house (they later lost it to foreclosure and now rent). They sold furniture and cashed in life insurance, got their creditors to forgive some debt. Zimmerman-Stein's brother gave them $50,000, all he could afford.
Next to the sofa, a canvas bag from Disney World bulges with unopened statements from Florida Pediatrics, Tampa Bay Emergency Physicians, the Mayo Clinic. On the envelopes, red letters scream, "Delinquency Notice" and "Past due."
They still owe at least $20,000, maybe 10 times that much, in medical bills. They don't really know. Stein stopped opening the envelopes months ago.
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Then there's this. And this. And this. And this. And this. And this.
Greatest health care in the world, folks, especially if you have insurance. Keep telling yourself that.