Christian Comes Home

But like a growing number of Arizonans, family now struggles with medical bills


Christian Austin was able to return home to Payson last Wednesday after a four-month stay in a Valley hospital.

Christian Austin was able to return home to Payson last Wednesday after a four-month stay in a Valley hospital.

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Christian Austin, the Payson baby who went from healthy and happy to paralyzed in an hour, has returned home.

But for his parents, the struggle continues, as it does for an estimated 20 percent of Arizona residents who lack medical insurance — and the 31 percent of Gila County residents whose coverage comes through the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS).

Christian suffers from, what doctors believe, a Chiari malformation. The skull at the base of Christian’s neck formed too narrow an opening. This caused the brain and brain stem to bunch up, impeding the flow of spinal fluid.

In Christian’s case, that caused his arms, part of his legs and his diaphragm to go into paralysis.

After flying to Phoenix Children’s Hospital, Christian remained under intense medical care and treatment for four months. He returned home on Wednesday, July 25.

The Team Christian Facebook page has a video of his mother carrying him into his home. As always, he has a smile on his face.

His mother thanked all those who sent Christian gifts for his recent birthday. “Thank goodness Christian got so many outfits for his birthday and throughout his hospital stay,” she wrote on the Team Christian Facebook page. “I cleaned out his closet and drawers and almost every single thing in there was too small. I can’t believe how much he has grown. He even grew out of his socks.”

Each day, Christian’s parents post videos and pictures as he settled into home life after his long stay in the hospital.

“He’s doing good,” said his dad, Gary.

However, the family now faces other challenges obtaining the care Christian needs, echoing the struggles of the rising number of Americans who are unemployed, uninsured or under insured. Provisions of the Affordable Health Care Act will provide new options for many of those families starting in 2014, but for the moment, the economic downturn has left many families vulnerable to medical bankruptcy — or forced to forego care.

In late June, Gary was fired from his counseling job. He believes he was fired because Christian’s medical crisis put an incredible strain on the company’s medical insurance, which will certainly increase its insurance premiums.

“There is no (Arizona) law prohibiting companies from firing you over use of a company’s medical insurance plan,” said Gary.

The Austin family faces insurmountable medical bills. Each month Christian stayed in the hospital, he wracked up $395,000 in bills — simply for his care. That amount did not include the surgery he had to place a tracheotomy feeding tube, or the doctor’s visits.

Gary’s insurance benefits run out on July 31. His wife Dori, works for the Mazatzal Casino, but she does not receive medical benefits.

Children’s Hospital put the Austin family on AHCCCS, but state medical insurance care has limitations.

Gary now plans on creating Christian’s Law, which would preclude employers from firing staff for using medical benefits. Already he has enlisted the support of Arizona State Senator Debbie McCune Davis to sponsor the legislation.

“What we propose is a new law called Christian’s Law (Christian is the name of my son who inspired all of this),” wrote Gary in an e-mail. “We are looking for bipartisan sponsorship and support. The law could become A.R.S 41-1464 (D). It will read, “It is unlawful for an employer to terminate an employee for using benefits under the company health plan. Employers found to be in violation of this law shall be liable for medical bills associated with the employee’s loss of coverage.”

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Contributed photo

The cost of Christian Austin’s medical care has left his family vulnerable to medical bankruptcy.

A growing number of Arizona families face similar problems, as the state cuts back the AHCCCS program and more and more employers drop employee health plans.

Some 60 million Americans lack health insurance, which works out to about 16 percent of the population. In Arizona, the estimate stands at about 19 percent.

The number has grown since the Arizona Legislature cut an estimated 250,000 from the AHCCCS rolls to help balance its budget. That group consisted of childless adults living below the poverty line based on the success of a 2002 voter-approved initiative and children from families with incomes between 100 percent of the poverty level and 133 percent of the poverty level.

The Affordable Health Care Act in 2014 will provide subsidized insurance for many of those families, with controls on the administrative overhead insurance plans can charge and the elimination of an insurance plan’s ability to bar coverage based on “pre-existing conditions.” Those provisions will provide coverage for an estimated 32 million Americans, about half of the currently uninsured population.

However, the health care reforms rely heavily on the assumption that states will expand their Medicaid (AHCCCS) programs if the federal government provides almost all of the initial funding. Normally, the states pay about one third of the cost of AHCCCS patients.

However, although the U.S. Supreme Court upheld most of the provisions of the reforms, it also ruled that the state couldn’t cut AHCCCS funding if states refused to approve the expansion of the program. Several key legislative leaders have said they would oppose any expansion of AHCCCS, whose costs have grown rapidly since the onset of the recession.

National studies suggest that the number of people without medical insurance rose by about 10 percent as the recession drove up the unemployment rate.

A Harvard Medical School study concluded that some 45,000 people die prematurely each year because they don’t have medical insurance, a roughly 250 percent increase from 2002. Working-age Americans have a 40 percent higher risk of death if they lack medical insurance, the study concluded. In 2002, that excess risk stood at just 25 percent.

Numerous other studies have shown that people without insurance generally skip care, prescriptions and treatment.

Moreover, even Arizona residents with medical insurance are struggling to pay rising co-pays and deductibles, according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health. People struggling to pay medical debt reported they often skip or delay treatment.

One recent study concluded medical bills account for two-thirds of all bankruptcies.

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