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When Rachel McAlister, 62, of Culpeper left her position as manager of McDonald's four years ago, she never imagined how detrimental it would be to lose her insurance.
McAlister has lived in Culpeper for 37 years and served as manager of McDonald's for thirteen. Her husband Mahlon, better known as Pnut, has lived in the community his entire life and has volunteered over 43 years for the fire department while also working long hours as a truck driver. They have an ever-growing family that includes four daughters, eight grandchildren, and one great-grandchild with two members serving in the military. They are your typical all American family with close ties to the community, but like many they are struggling to make ends meet.
For McAlister it all began with her losing her insurance. She decided to look into a COBRA plan when she realized she could no longer keep her full time position. The combination of stress from her supervising position and managing her diabetes had become too much for her to handle.
"COBRA would have cost me $910 a month, which was much more than I could afford to pay," says McAlister. With her options extremely limited, McAlister went uninsured for the first time in her life, but it did not become a major problem until last year.
Last December she suffered a daunting mini stroke, but eventually recovered. However, with the stroke came tests, labs and medications to ensure she remained healthy. Without insurance, the bills really began to add up.
"I never thought that I would be in the position I am now, especially since I had insurance for my whole life up until this happened," says McAlister. "You think when you're in your 60's life should be easier."
When McDonald's reopened after the renovation, McAlister began working part-time, but the bills were still difficult to pay. Then in March 2009, she received the devastating news that she had stage two colon cancer. She had waited a few months after the onset of some bodily changes to see a physician.
"The doctor asked me why I waited and I said, number one I don't have insurance and number two, I was scared to death.'"
She went to Dr. Bush at Culpeper Regional Hospital's Surgery Center for her colonoscopy during which she found a mass. In April, still without insurance, Dr. Golub performed the surgery to remove the mass and some surrounding tissue. Tests showed the cancer had not spread, about which McAlister could not have been more relieved.
"I was blessed that I didn't have to do chemotherapy. I told the doctor that I will do what you tell me to do, but if it's not necessary I really don't have the money to do it," she reasons.
With the need for surgery, tests and labs, McAlister's debt increased. As a testament to McAlister's warm personality and kind nature, her co-workers at McDonald's raised $3,000 to help her after the surgery.
"I was just shocked. They helped me keep paying my bills while I was off."
McAlister went back to work this past July and continues to slowly but surely pay her debt. Each month, she opens a very thick notebook containing every bill she owes and pays $50 to each. She says it is the best she can afford to do and will continue until she has paid all of it back.
When her husband, who has been working at Updike for a year, was eligible for insurance, they decided to see how much it would cost to insure her. It would increase his premium by over $2,000 a month due to her preexisting condition, versus the $280 a month he pays for only himself.
"It would take just about all of his paycheck, which we need to live on. He said it wasn't fair for him to have it and not me, but I said, Listen, you are up and down the road everyday. You need this.'"
McAlister began applying for financial assistance to lower her debts, but unfortunately, she does not qualify for the aid available.
"Everywhere I've been they've tried so hard to get me help, but because our household income is too high and I'm married, I get denied," she says. "I've tried to explain that this is where this goes and this goes and that there is nothing left to give, but it doesn't matter."
Culpeper Regional Hospital's Foundation approached the hospital's business office about finding a candidate for their Medical Care for All Fund. It supports patients at Culpeper Regional Hospital who do not qualify for full hospital financial assistance and for whom hospital bills are a financial hardship.
"The money, which is given by Foundation donors, is for individuals who are trying to make ends meet, but just can't make it work," says former Foundation Director Cindy Colson. "Rachel McAlister was the first individual that came to their minds when I asked the business office staff."
It's no wonder McAlister, who is well known for her strong, upbeat, positive attitude, was chosen for this. With a smile on her face she says, "I'm so thankful that my disposition stayed. It could have turned ugly. I hate to even complain about anything with the way things have worked out. Everybody has been so kind, just so nice."
When McAlister received the call that she would receive the fund, she was overwhelmed. She immediately began telling everyone of the news she received.
"It is a tremendous help. You have no idea. I can't even express what this does for me. I'm so grateful."
The money from the fund will be taken directly off McAlister's bill of debt, and while she could not be more thankful, she will still have a great deal to pay. Her hope for herself and others in her situation is for the system to change.
"I'm looking forward to healthcare reform. Either that or I hurry up and get 65," she smiles. "I feel like it is people who are ill that are being punished. Something has to change."
As McAlister and others wait for a change, funds like Medical Care for All continue to be essential in helping hard working individuals and families get by. These donations keep them going, and for a hopeful, loving wife, mother and grandmother like Rachel McAlister it makes all the difference in the world.
"I look back at things, even with all the trials, and I feel blessed."
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