Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Food or medicine: our choice

By Chris Russell

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Sherry Fortin sat against a mailbox outside Pinocchio’s in downtown Northampton, knitting a winter hat. On the sidewalk lay her finished products: several hats and scarves, which cost $20, mittens, which cost $15, and bracelets, a bargain at only $1.

A colorful sign advertised her wares: “I have diabetes and need medication. One dollar donation for a bracelet. I can knit anything you want, and will take orders.”

Sherry, 45, has had Type 2 Diabetes for 18 years. She is supposed to take insulin and prescription pills everyday to manage her blood sugar. Diabetic coma or death, along with minor symptoms such as dizziness, nausea and extreme sweating can result from blood sugar that is either too low or too high.

However, Sherry has not taken insulin or pills since July. The medicine requires a $30 monthly co-pay through Mass Health, a state insurance program. This payment makes the medicine seem more like a luxury than a necessity, as Sherry is more concerned with finding enough to eat.      

Someone with a steady income wouldn’t expose themselves to such serious health risks, but Sherry has been out of work for over a year. On good days, she makes about $20 selling her knitted products, enough to buy food and service her addictions to soda and cigarettes, but what about insulin?

“I can’t afford it right now,” she said.

Sherry said she can’t quit cigarettes or soda, and thus save money to buy medication, as she is addicted to both. She started drinking Pepsi heavily when she was eight, and started smoking at 12.

Now when she goes without soda for long periods of time. “I get sick to my stomach, and really bad headaches,” she said. Meanwhile, going without cigarettes makes her extremely irritable and stressed. She must satisfy these addictions – along with hunger – to feel normal, which makes them a bigger concern than managing her long term health.

“Whenever I make some money, I’m like, “Do I want my medication or do I want food?” she said. “Most times, food wins.”

Unfortunately, medication has been “losing” for a while. Although Sherry was employed until last year, she had no health insurance until she recently became eligible for Mass Health, and thus little or no access to medication over her 18 years with diabetes.     

Inadequate medication, failing to quit smoking and eat properly explains why Sherry now suffers from neuropathy. A common ailment among those with diabetes, neuropathy is nerve damage in the hands and feet caused by either too low or too high blood sugar levels for extended periods of time. Amputation is often needed to prevent the nerve damage from spreading.

“My feet hurt really bad; they have numb feeling of being asleep, but still ache all the time,” Sherry said. “They have been threatening to cut my feet off for a while, but I won’t let them.”

Recently, her pinkie has also started to feel numb, which has made Sherry especially apprehensive.

“If anything happens to my hands, I would really be in trouble,” she said. “My hands are how I make my living.”

Sherry epitomizes the failures of America’s health care system, according to Gloria DiFulivo, a professor in University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Public Health Department.

DiFulivo said if Sherry had had insurance when she was diagnosed – which would have provided medication and helped her correctly manage the disease – she would probably not have neuropathy now.

This preventive care “would be way cheaper than amputating her legs, if that is what it comes to,” DiFulivo said. She provided some figures to make her case: America spends $174 billion a year in health expenses related to diabetes, yet it’s estimated 80 percent of Type 2 Diabetes – by far the more common type – could be prevented through lifestyle changes. These changes include proper dieting, physical exercise and stopping smoking, which are all easier when one has a supportive doctor and comprehensive health insurance.

Even though Sherry is uninsured, the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, passed by Congress in 1986, ensures that hospitals must provide her emergency care. Living with diabetes and without access to medication is dangerous, and Sherry has been hospitalized several times. Since she can’t pay, the federal government partially reimburses the hospital, which covers the rest of the bill by charging health insurance companies more. The companies then pass along these higher costs to everyone else in the form of higher premiums, which have risen 119 percent in the last decade, according to the Commonwealth Fund.

To recap: The government subsidizes costly hospital visits for those it denies health insurance. Doesn’t it seem more logical to give people actual insurance rather than the super expensive “emergency room only” health care plan?

“People ask ‘How are we going to pay to cover [uninsured people]?’” DiFulivo asked. “Well who do you think is covering them now?”

Chris Russell is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached [email protected]


7 Responses to “Food or medicine: our choice”

  1. Zachary on November 2nd, 2009 1:17 pm

    I hope this article was meant to be a work of satire. its about time people start to take responsibility for their actions. it is unfortunate that this woman is unemployed but she has to take responsibility for herself and her diabetes, which was probably caused by her excessive use of soda. She needs to quit drinking soda and smoking if that’s what it takes for her to be able to afford her fairly inexpensive medicine. How you blame our healthcare system is unimaginable as it only costs her 30 dollars to control her disease. She has no problem paying 8 dollars for one pack of cigarettes so she should be able to afford a measly sum for her self induced disease. It is this type of irresponsibility that has driven up the costs of healthcare. we need to stop relying on others and our government and start relying on our selves. if this was a piece of satire than I apologize for my obliviousness.


  2. Zack on November 3rd, 2009 10:50 am

    Way to just skip my entire post and trash me instead of actually thinking about the issue. I understand that preventative care is more affordable than emergency room visits, but the fact that our healthcare system can provide this woman with the necessary medication for only $30 dollars per month, yet she chooses to drink and smoke instead is simply no means to make the argument. This is the type of person who has driven up costs of our whole system. She is a diabetic, probably self induced from the soda, she smokes and still drinks soda as a diabetic which is terrible for her, and then goes to the emergency room, shoving the cost on the rest of us instead of being responsible for herself. Its similar to people going to the emergency room because of a headache or stomach ache. I’m sorry but I don’t think that we need to pay for this woman’s medication, and I don’t think we should pay for her unnecessary trips to the emergency room. Its not practical to ask for the responsible and hardworking members of society to pay for those citizens who don’t aren’t responsible for themselves.
    To me this situation is similar to someone who is constantly overdosing on drugs and ending up in the emergency room. Why should the American people have to pay at all for the irresponsibility of others? I understand that denying care is an issue of legality, and I am not proposing that, but you must understand that if the government gets involved with health care more so than it already is, businesses will suffer, and our entire country risks going bankrupt within 15 years. So I would suggest to you “Pac Man” that you stop embracing the word of Pelosi and Obama as gospel, and start actually examining what the proposed health care reforms would do to our great country.


  3. Turd Ferguson on November 3rd, 2009 4:09 pm

    This is a stupid argument. Theres a difference between lessening costs and diverting costs, and whether youre paying the difference in inferior goods/services or higher taxes doesnt make a difference. And Id rather be dead than a slave to the non producers.


  4. Alex on November 5th, 2009 12:09 pm


    This account is just a single perspective into how public health in the current healthcare system is simply not a priority and how as a result individuals, our healthcare system, our economy, and our country as a whole suffer.

    You hold a good point that Sherry is very likely aggravating her condition through continuing to drink soda but without an MD and actually interacting with her, I think you’re being a tad presumptuous to conclude that her condition’s onset is purely her own doing. On that note you’ll find that the National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse cites that over 10% of those older than 20 have Diabetes, often likely induced through a lifetime of taking in sugar and carb loaded, nutritionally devoid food because that’s what is cheapest to produce and sell.

    So if you’d like to preach a sermon about hard working americans getting screwed over by those fatties stuffing their faces, well, you’re going to have a hard time marginalizing 1/10th of the nation. Then of course there are plenty of other dangerous habits such as smoking, or perhaps even worse, donating a kidney to a loved one (both of these will likely increase future medical costs and cause a decreased life expectancy).

    Point is, many of the individuals who are suffering right now aren’t the hobos who are on the street because they drank themselves to oblivion (and proving this cause and effect is often a chicken and the egg type feat) but the working poor who make just enough to disqualify them for any kind of medicaid but who aren’t covered by any affordable insurance and are just 1 hospitalization (for themselves or often for their children) from bankruptcy. Often these individuals allow a treatable condition to languish because the time they would be required to take off from work to go see a doctor is an actual strain in lost income and when you work at a menial job in a crappy economy, replacing you when you take 1 too many sick days is as easy as a layoff.

    As an EMT who takes these evil leeches to the hospital when they finally collapse, I can tell you that a system with a better focus on preventative care would save a substantial amount of money (each ride with me and my partner is usually over $500 (of which I see $12/hour)) and more importantly would allow these individuals to remain healthy, contributing not only to the idea basic human dignity (meaningless of course) but also the the ability of these people to contribute to the economy.

    Also, please post where you’re getting your “national bankruptcy within 15 years” statistic. I have a hunch it would take 5 minutes to trace that either to a conservative think-tank with no research credentials, a blogger living in his mom’s basement, or to an insurance company lobbying proxy.



  5. Zachary on November 6th, 2009 1:05 pm

    Well being an economics major and a finance junkie I was using 15 years as a rough estimate of when we will lose our credit rating as a nation regardless of a costly and unnecessary health insurance plan. We are headed down a path of certain financial disaster unless we drastically change our course. We need to get rid of many government programs such as the federal board of education, many social service organizations and certainly any notion of more government health insurance. We need to make sure we Properly fund our military but at the same time make sure that we don’t throw needless money to obscure projects.

    The government needs to get its hands out of everyone’s pockets and it needs to allow business to flourish once again. We need to start respecting our constitution rather than trample on it by calling it a living and changing document. Currently supporters of healthcare reform tour that our current course will lead to 30% of our gdp being spent on health care in 10 years but they then use examples such as France which currently spends 52% of its GDP in health care with much less people. I don’t want my country to become a government run nanny state. I want the united states to remain as a beacon of freedom for all, where hard work and dedication is all that is necessary for success. Don’t kill the American dream that our forefathers sacrificed their lives for.


  6. Alex on November 9th, 2009 2:55 am


    This is the second time you’ve claimed france spends 52% GDP on Healthcare (the first when commenting on “Is health care really so different than education?”). This is a falsified statistic and again, you have not provided any evidence to back it up or even explain your mistake when the information on this is so easily available.

    As I stated before, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has shown that France spends about 11% GDP on healthcare compared to the U.S. expenditure of about 16% GDP. These are commonly accepted stats so the fact that you’re an economics major doesn’t really help your case.


  7. shooter mcgavin on November 9th, 2009 2:06 pm

    “Well being an economics major and a finance junkie I was using 15 years as a rough estimate of when we will lose our credit rating as a nation regardless of a costly and unnecessary health insurance plan.”

    zack you are definitely a reliable source on this subject. thanks so much for enlightening us!!!!!


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