I opted out of health insurance and then had a medical emergency. Here's how Medicaid is rescuing me from $50,000 in medical bills.

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  • Medicaid is a state and federal health insurance program offered to some low-income Americans.
  • Eight months after she was dropped from her parents’ health insurance, author Olivia Young had her first medical emergency.
  • She was eligible for Medicaid, which has helped her through $US50,000 in medical bills.

I got through 26 years of life without ever having a medical emergency much worse than the flu. I never had a surgery, save the standard wisdom-teeth removal that nearly everyone underwent during high school.

That is, until almost immediately after I was removed from my parents’ health insurance policy.

It was like the lyrics of that Cinderella song, “Don’t Know What You Got (Till It’s Gone).” Growing up, I was always covered as a dependent by my parents’healthcare plan, which allowed me to get annual physicals and anything else I needed (which truly wasn’t much).

Then, eight months after I turned 26 – the age when I, by healthcare standards, became an “independent” – I found myself in the emergency room with kidney stones.

At the time, I didn’t know what was causing me to thrash, scream, and vomit (no, really) from pain. I just woke up one morning in agony and assumed my appendix was bursting, which does require medical attention, I confirmed with a quick Google search. And, to make the situation even worse, I no longer had insurance.

A year before this incident, I had quit my full-time public-relations job to travel around the world. I was a healthy – or so I thought – vegan marathoner who didn’t have a steady income, so when my parents’ insurance dropped me, I wasn’t exactly rushing to purchase a plan of my own.


Read more:
I’m a burned-out millennial who quit a high-paying 9-to-5 job to travel full time

A visit to the emergency room

In fall 2017, I was visiting my hometown in Ohio for a few months before continuing my travels in Australia. While I was there, I started to feel a dull-but-intense internal aching that quickly developed into a sharp, blinding pain. By the time my father rolled me into the emergency room in a wheelchair, I was almost blacked out. I couldn’t sit still or speak in complete sentences. The nurses even administered a blood test to make sure I wasn’t an addict before they would give me any pain relief.

Olivia YoungOlivia YoungThe author.

What came next was a five-day stint in the hospital packed with an array of CT scans, two cystourethroscopies, and a steady flow of medicine that I knew I would never be able to afford. I begged the doctors and nurses to let me leave, knowing the bills were mounting by the minute. But instead of discharging me, they sent a patients’ rights representative to my room to explain Medicaid.

Medicaid is a health-insurance program offered to low-income Americans and funded by both the federal and state governments. The Affordable Care Act (ACA), also called Obamacare, gave states funding to offer Medicaid to many more of their low-income residents, though some states decided not to take it.

Ohio was one of the states that expanded its Medicaid program under the ACA. In Ohio, you can qualify for Medicaid if your annual income is less than roughly $US16,800 for a single person, a requirement I had no problem fulfilling with my minuscule freelancer’s salary (and to answer the question you’re probably asking: Yes, I do live on $US1,000 per month).

The representative walked me through the application process, and I was approved for full coverage almost immediately. But I wasn’t quite in the clear just yet.

It was surprising (or, rather, horrifying) to receive about a dozen bills totaling $US50,407 in my mailbox weeks after I was released: $US27,158 for the hospital stay itself, $US1,874 for a few hours in the emergency room, $US801 for anesthesia, and the list went on. The bills, I learned, were being sent to my previous insurance provider, which, of course, refused to pay them because I was no longer a member.

Spared a lifetime of debt

So, I boarded my flight to Australia, as planned, with $US50,000 in medical bills on the brain. It took me three months (and countless international calling minutes) to get my former insurance company taken off of my digital health file before Medicaid would pay so much as a dime. Then, I was tasked with having each service provider rebill Medicaid individually.

Some were harder to get in touch with than others. About $US3,000 worth of bills ended up in the hands of collections agents before I could square them away. Now, one year after my kidney-stones emergency, I’m still struggling to get the last few bills paid.

Nonetheless, four-digit figures are much easier to live with than five-digit figures. Today, my kidneys seem to be stone-free, and I’ve been spared a lifetime of debt thanks to Medicaid, of which I’m still a member today. Slowly, I am easing out of the poverty bracket and lining up healthcare plans for the future because I certainly won’t be wandering the streets without health insurance anymore.

Want to tell us your healthcare story? Email Zach Tracer at [email protected]r.com.

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