SALT LAKE CITY — Four years ago, Christie Sorensen was desperate to find out more about the mysterious swelling in her throat, on her face and along her collarbone.
The condition was worsening and interfering with her day-to-day functioning. But the CT scan doctors offered to give her, she said, "was not feasible," because it would cost $2,000 due to her lack of insurance.
At the time Sorensen was a Salt Lake Community College student, who cared for her disabled father and whose mother had passed away years before, and she had no coverage. So she forewent the costly diagnosis procedure.
Eventually, Sorensen was desperate enough to check herself into an emergency room. Immediately after a full body scan there, a doctor informed her that they "know for a fact that this is cancer," and she was taken into surgery.
Later, Sorensen said, doctors informed her "that the 6 centimeter tumor on my heart was growing so fast that if I hadn't come in when I did it would have cut off the air to my esophagus and suffocated me to death."
Her life had been saved, she said, but next up was paying for the emergency five-hour surgery, the ensuing chemotherapy and more. It was then that Sorensen finally applied for Medicaid coverage, hoping against hope to find relief from $300,000 in medical bills.
Three months later, she said, "I was so relieved" — her application had been approved.
Sorensen was among several health care advocates to give joint remarks Wednesday imploring Utahns to vote in favor of Proposition 3, the state's Medicaid expansion ballot initiative.
"Receiving Medicaid meant that my family still had a place to live, and that I was going to be able to receive treatments," said Sorensen, an advocate with the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. "Medicaid made it so that I didn't have to worry about spending my whole life crippled by medical debt as a young 24-year-old and could focus my energy on fighting (cancer). I am so grateful for this."
Sorensen was joined at the American Cancer Society Hope Lodge in Salt Lake City by representatives from the American Heart Association, National Multiple Sclerosis Society, American Diabetes Association, Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Epilepsy Foundation of Utah, and Susan G. Komen, a breast cancer fundraising nonprofit, each of whom lent their voices in support of the Medicaid expansion measure.
The ballot initiative would increase the state sales tax in order expand Medicaid coverage to all Utahns up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, bringing eligibility to an estimated 150,000 people who are otherwise not covered.
"By increasing access to health care coverage through Medicaid, we will be providing thousands of uninsured Utah residents access to health care coverage that could save lives like mine," Sorensen said.
Marc Watterson, director of government relations for the American Heart Association, told reporters that increasing Medicaid eligibility is a way to show compassion for those who cannot afford private insurance and may also reduce overall health care costs in the long run.
"If low-income Utahns remain uninsured and without access to (services) to manage their risk factors and chronic conditions, they will seek emergency care as complications develop, which will only further burden our state's health care system," Watterson said.
Watterson added that, with heart disease and stroke affecting about 1 in 3 Utahns over the course of their life, promoting preventive care among all income levels is important in reducing the impact of those medical conditions.
"Each day, Utahns are losing their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers to heart disease," he said. "Cardiovascular disease and stroke are 80 percent preventable, but critical to prevention is the ability to affordably consult with a physician on how best to manage risk factors before problems start."
Linda Spira, manager of community development for Susan G. Komen in the organization's Utah field office, said uninsured women "have poorer outcomes" in treating breast cancer because they typically wait longer before committing to seek diagnosis and treatment.
When a woman isn't diagnosed until her breast cancer is advanced, Spira said, the disease is "more difficult to treat, deadlier, and five times more costly to treat than earlier stages."
Proposition 3 would raise the Utah sales tax from 4.7 to 4.85 percent. The ballot initiative campaign, Utah Decides Healthcare, estimates such a move would raise about $91 million in state money, drawing down about $800 million in matching federal money.
As passed, the Affordable Care Act required states to expand Medicaid coverage eligibility to every individual and family up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, but a 2012 Supreme Court ruling made such expansion optional for states, many of which have opted against doing so.
In recent years, several efforts to fully expand Medicaid eligibility have failed at the state Legislature. Opponents have raised concerns about the sustainability of federal matching rates and whether expansion could ultimately overwhelm the state budget.7 comments on this story
State lawmakers passed a smaller version of Medicaid expansion earlier this year, covering all Utahns up to 100 percent of the federal poverty level, estimated to potentially benefit an estimated 70,000 to 90,000 Utahns. Supporters of that expansion have said it comes with significantly fewer concerns about the costs to taxpayers.
The federal government has not yet either approved or rejected state lawmakers' version of Medicaid expansion.
Clarification: An earlier version stated Proposition 3 would require federal approval for implementation. However, the story did not make clear that the measure would be subject to a different, less extensive approval process than the Medicaid waiver approval process that the expansion proposal passed by Utah lawmakers faces.