College Tuition or Healthcare? N.C. Mom Chooses Her Children’s Education Over Her Own Healthcare

Olga Kennedy is busy woman. She works 7 days a week at Aqua Squad Pool and Spa Service which she owns with her husband, she’s a fulltime mom to two children, and she teaches English and general education classes at a private college in Raleigh, N.C. But despite all of her hard work and success, she still finds health insurance out of her reach. She, like so many other North Carolinians, had to make hard decisions balancing her personal health needs with her family's financial ones. In this week’s episode of “The Cost of Health,” we spoke to Olga about the hard choice she had to make between paying for healthcare for herself, or college for her daughter.

Healthcare is [like] getting a good mechanic -- when you find one, you need to stay with that person!

Olga knows how to stay busy. Between teaching, parenting, and running a business, she also finds time for her love of writing and rescuing animals. The only thing slowing her down have been recurring health problems. Olga shares that kidney stones and foot surgery, paired with high deductibles and a changing healthcare market, have made it hard to keep health insurance. It added a financial strain on her family and her business.

“I've had health insurance my whole adult life, until this year,” Olga shares. “I would buy it every year for myself and then, over the last several years, it became more of an issue, because the rates [would] just continue to increase and the providers changed every year. The way I feel about healthcare is kind of like how I feel about getting a good mechanic -- when you find one, you need to stay with that person! Then when I noticed that things were changing and I couldn't go to the same doctors, it just became almost useless, like, why am I paying this when I can't go see who I would like to see? So for about two years, I thought really hard about what I was going to do -- because, again, I would know that [the rates were] going to increase again -- so we finally decided that for 2018, I was going to go without insurance. It was a really hard decision. Like I said, it took years for us to kind of do the pros and cons.”

Those pros and cons included her children’s education. One child is already in college, and the second will be in a few years. For Olga, the choice was clear.

“My daughter started college -- she just finished freshman year -- and I decided to pay for my daughter's college,” Olga sys. “She works, she got straight A's, so I felt that I needed to do that for her. But in order to do that, that was an expense that I had to accommodate for based on what I bring it.”

Costs for her healthcare began to rise when she turned 40, a troubling and sadly common occurrence that Olga recalls with a lingering touch of disbelief.

“I remember the phone call to Blue Cross, [asking] what happened [with my rate], why did it go up $100? I remember the rep basically saying it's because you're 40 and you're a woman. I just couldn't understand that,” Olga shares with reproach. “Then we had a long conversation on the phone about how I was going to keep that premium down, or if it can go down, and that's when I started to learn about if I increase my deductible I could lower. Then you start thinking having to pay this much of a month times 12 and then your deductible, and I didn't really feel that I had too many options there. And then every year it would increase. When the whole healthcare system changed, that kind of threw me for a loop.”

Olga grew increasingly aggravated with the changes to her healthcare. She would find a doctor that she liked, but would find that they were no longer in her network. When she started to pay out-of-pocket to see her preferred healthcare provider, she realized that she was paying way too much, with costs totaling $500 a month just for her alone. Her children are covered on their father’s plan, and her husband was without healthcare. She admits that was a tough decision as well.

“He works out in the field where the opportunity for him to be hurt is real,” Olga says. Her family would stand to lose a lot of income if her husband was hurt on the job. In 2018, Olga made the decision to drop healthcare. She and her husband both pay for their costs out-of-pocket.

But before completely letting go of her health insurance, Olga had one more choice to make. She had previously had surgery on her left foot, and her surgeon noted at the time that in five years or so, she would need to have a similar surgery on her right foot. The doctor recommended therapy and exploring other options before invasive surgery. That was a luxury Olga felt she could not afford. Rather than waiting, she chose to have premature surgery on her foot while she still had health insurance. Had she been able to afford her health insurance for another year and pay for her daughter’s education, she would not have made the leap to surgery. She says it was embarrassing for her, and she felt forced by her financial situation rather than her medical situation. It’s a choice she didn’t want to make, but the high cost of her health insurance forced her to make it.

There’s hope for her future costs though, as her daughter studies chemistry and biology in school. Olga hopes that her daughter will pursue either a career as a veterinarian or a doctor. She shares that her children often joke that her medical worries make “Mom broken.”

“I [encourage her] take it to med school, so you can take care of me,” Olga says. “The running joke in the house is that mom’s broken again. It’s kind of a joke, but kind of not a joke that she go to med school so she can take care of me.”

No one should have to worry about choosing between healthcare and their children’s education. The North Carolina Coalition for Fiscal Health wants to make sure that stories like Olga Kennedy’s become less common. To listen to this week’s episode, and hear more about the financial and personal decisions Olga faced when choosing to get rid of her healthcare, download our podcast here, or listen to the full interview below.

If you have a story to share about the impact of healthcare costs on your family or business, let us know at michael@fiscalhealthnc.com or on twitter @michaelck.

As our state and federal legislators work to fix our broken healthcare system, it is important that they remember that every regulation, every mandate, can result in costs that require dramatic lifestyle changes and piecemeal healthcare plans for North Carolinians.  

Past (and future) episodes of our podcast “The Cost of Health” are available for download. Visit here, or listen and subscribe on your favorite podcast app.

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