Many East Tennesseans hard hit by high medical bills

Growing number of East Tennesseans hard hit by high medical bills

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"I don't know what I'd do without this old teddy bear," Mary said, smiling at Everett. "I don't know what I'd do without this old teddy bear," Mary said, smiling at Everett.
Catholic Charities sponsors the Crazy Quilt, where the couple often shops. Catholic Charities sponsors the Crazy Quilt, where the couple often shops.
Paying for prescription drugs takes a big chunk out of their fixed income, nearly 40 percent a month. Paying for prescription drugs takes a big chunk out of their fixed income, nearly 40 percent a month.

By DON DARE
6 News Reporter

NEWCOMB (WATE) - The number of poor comes in at nearly 17% in Tennessee. It's even higher in some rural counties. While government programs help the poor, many still live far below the safety net.

The hardest hit are the sick who are plagued by high medical bills.

The mild winter has been a blessing for Everett Day. It means he doesn't have to buy as much firewood to heat the mobile home where he and his wife live in Newcomb.

You can see the community in North Campbell County from Interstate 75. Only a couple of hundred residents live in the valley where Newcomb is located. Hundreds more used to live there in better times.

Everett's wife, Mary, hasn't had to buy as many winter clothes lately at the Crazy quilt, a thrift store in Newcomb. Catholic Charities sponsors the store, along with a food pantry.

Without Crazy Quilt, Mary couldn't stretch their limited income. "Me and my husband are on a fixed income so I can't afford to go to Walmart," she said.

A school bus driver for 14 years, Everett was diagnosed with lung and throat cancer last year and can't drive a bus anymore. At 50 years old, he draws $236 a month on Social Security disability.

Mary is also disabled. She's 46 and worked at a nursing home until last year, but diabetes and emphysema forced her to quit. She draws $795 a month from Social Security and $97 a month in food stamps.

One thing in their favor is, they own their home. However, they make payments on their van. They need it so they can see their doctors in Knoxville.

Paying for prescription drugs takes a big chunk out of their fixed income, nearly 40 percent a month.

A letter from TennCare reminded Everett only five prescriptions a month are allowed. He says he went over the limit "every month."

Mary's choice is to cut back on prescriptions. "I've had them quit filling a whole lot of them because I can't afford it. That's right."

While firewood keeps their home warm, they also have to pay their power bill. Nearly 20 percent of their monthly income in January went to utilities. "We watch our money carefully," Everett said. "We have to."

The couple has cut down on unnecessary expenses and they live without luxuries.

Dr. Nathan Kelly is an associate professor of political science at the University of Tennessee.    Although he's never met the Days, he says they represent the harsh reality of many unemployed East Tennesseans who are in poor health.

"They want to work. They really want to be productive. It frustrates them to no end that they're not healthy," Dr. Kelly said. "Folks are very proud. They don't like to need help."

Many years ago, the portraits of Appalachia depicted abject destitution. Bleak pictures of mountain people during the Great Depression shook the nation and President Franklin Roosevelt.

In August 1935, the president signed the Social Security Act as part of his New Deal. It was a safety net for the elderly and unemployed.

After Lyndon Johnson became president, he declared a War on Poverty. In January 1964, he proposed a Great Society. It set in motion such programs as food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid.

"These programs, in large part, were designed to be a safety net," Dr. Kelly said. "That is when somebody falls off the path to prosperity that they can be caught. What they don't do such a good job of doing is getting rid of poverty altogether."

In communities like Newcomb, jobs are a thing of the past. The economy in the rural valley has pushed unemployment to 13 percent, and the ranks of the underemployed are even higher.

Charities like Crazy Quilt extend a lifeline to hundreds of people struggling to stretch their checks and pay their bills.

"That's one of the things we do here at the Crazy Quilt when we get funds is to help people with their electric," said Crazy Quilt Director Ed Bryant.

Married for 30 years, Everett and Mary Day consider themselves better off than others they know because they have each other. "I don't know what I'd do without this old teddy bear," Mary said, smiling at her husband.

Crazy Quilt served over 700 people last year from Campbell, Claiborne and Scott counties. Donations, some few grants and people's generosity keep the thrift store open so it can help the needy.

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