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Should lead-exposed families in Flint have to cover related medical bills?

Mar 15, 2016

Keri Webber, left, and her daughter, Stephanie, helping out at a U.S. EPA open house in Flint on March 12, 2016.
Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Flint residents are getting some relief when it comes to their water bills. But what about their medical bills? It’s a question some Flint families are asking.

Medical bills are adding up for Keri Webber. I met her over the weekend, volunteering at an open house for Flint residents.

“Already in collection, already in collection,” she says, flipping through a stack of bills in the backseat of her white Chrysler minivan. “This one here: $226 paid, but we still owe $242,” she says.

That’s $242 for one specialist.

The Webbers had Medicare coverage last year, because of a disability, but still, the bills started adding up last fall. In late August Webber’s husband, Mike, had an eye stroke. There’s a huge blind spot now in his right eye.

“He went from perfect vision to where his vision is now screwed up,” Webber says.

“What can he not do now that he could do before?" I ask.

“Oh, he just can’t see,” she answers flatly. “It's only one eye, right?”

Webber’s smile shows her sarcasm here. That said, Webber is happy things didn’t turn out worse for her husband.

The day Mike went to the doctor about his eye, Webber says her husband’s blood pressure was 225 over 157. He had taken a small dose of Lopressor for several years, but his blood pressure had never been that high.

His family doctor told him to see a retinal specialist and a cardiologist right away.

“The eye doctors said either he had a blood clot and it blew in his eye, or what they figure is more likely, his blood pressure got so high he simply popped the artery,” Webber said.

It took months to get the bleeding in his eye under control, Webber said, but his high blood pressure is still a problem. He’s now taking eight pills a day for it.

Webber didn’t tie her husband’s sudden health problems to lead until about a month after the eye stroke, in early October, after news about the lead levels in Flint’s water came out. They were watching a doctor on the news explain symptoms of lead exposure in adults, Webber said, and the first one this doctor listed was extremely high, uncontrollable blood pressure.

“It clicked," she said. "So the next thing we do, everybody goes in and gets lead tested.”

Webber, her husband, and her two daughters all tested positive for lead. One of her daughters had levels that were considered “elevated.” A different test of their tap water in December showed lead levels more than eight times higher than the federal limit of 15 parts per billion.

Taken together, Webber says the retinal specialists told her that Mike’s eye stroke was likely tied to his lead exposure.

Keri Webber says she was devastated when she got those results. The bills were never-ending. The eye specialists, the cardiologists, the extensive tests – she says it’s tough for the family to pay the bills with a yearly income of a little more than $30,000.

“I thought we were at about $1,200" behind on their medical bills, Webber says, looking again at the stack of bills.

Webber gets quiet, tells me the family is “rocketing towards bankruptcy.”

“Looking at this now and knowing these are not all the bills, there’s a ton more. My guess is we’re sitting somewhere around $7,000. What are you going to do? I’m not going to let me husband die. But do we have that? Hell no,” she said.

Like some 30,000 people in Flint, this year, the Webbers are covered under Medicaid.

Earlier this month, the state expanded coverage for another 15,000 people, covering all pregnant women and kids under the age of 21.

“Really this is focused on those high-risk populations that have the potential for greater impact for lead exposure,” Chris Priest, Michigan’s Medicaid director, said.

Lead can affect anyone who’s exposed, but pregnant women and kids are considered at higher risk of health problems. Priest says the state’s effort to expand Medicaid coverage to these two groups of people in Flint was “logical.”

But the expansion is not going to help people like the Webbers much.

They have Medicaid this year, but they have to pay more than $1,300 out of pocket per person, each and every month before Medicaid will pick up the tab. The Webbers aren’t alone. The average monthly “spend-down” for Medicaid coverage in Michigan is about $900, according to Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services.

The expansion won’t help the Webbers pay off all the bills they accumulated last year.

Priest and others at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, and even the governor’s office, are meeting with people like Keri Webber, to iron out some of these issues. But it’s all happening on an individual basis. A spokesman with the governor’s office says that’s the most appropriate response at this point.

“We have to work with the community to say, what is the degree of that impact?” MDHHS’s Chris Priest said.

“Is it attributable to what’s going on? And really, what are the needs on the ground? So we’re hearing the same things I think that you’re hearing. I think the question of how we respond is something we have to do in concert with the local community,” he said.

Webber is excited officials are taking the time to meet with her, to understand her budget and her family’s situation. But she’s cautiously hopeful, because she doesn’t want help for only her family.

“They said something about, ‘Well, we’re going to work on yours and then see,’ and I said, ‘No you’re not. No. I don’t receive relief until we all get relief,'” Webber said.

Webber is worried about others in this predicament. She doesn’t think anyone in Flint, especially those who can document lead exposure, should have to cover associated medical bills.  

“If (my husband) had gotten drunk, got in a wreck, was in a coma; that s**t’s on us. You poison him, and we have to pay for it? That’s your issue,” she said.

A group has paid for Webber to be in Washington D.C. this week, as Congress hosts hearings on the Flint water crisis. She’s taking the opportunity to sit down with national advocacy groups, to discuss her concerns.