by Namira Islam
My father was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer in September 2014. His only symptom was a persistent mild cough and some weight loss. He was not a smoker. By December, his medical bills were well over $100,000.
My father was also an engineer for General Motors, a job he loved. He’d been a full-time salaried employee there for over 30 years when he was diagnosed. He had excellent health for all but the last ten months of his life. In good moments, we’d joke with him that he was taking care of a life’s worth of doctor’s appointments and hospital stays and surgeries and medications all at once.
While we worried about the steady stream of medical bills, the biggest issue with it for us was administrative: given volume and the multitude of ways to pay, it took an hour every couple weeks to sit and make sure every single bill was paid. I still thank God today that because of my dad’s job and financial resources, the ability to pay his bills wasn’t at the top of our list of concerns. It was something we just had to do, and were, alhamdulillah, able to do.
That’s not always the case. As a former attorney for legal services, too many of my clients met federal poverty guidelines because of a lack of health insurance or being underinsured when illness hit. A sudden illness can mean both patient and caretakers can become unable to maintain employment due to hospital stays and steady doctor’s appointments. Many who are low-income do not have reliable access to transportation or friends/family who can step in and provide resources in a pinch. When, for example, three months’ worth of cancer treatment can result in bills over $100,000, a household that is paycheck-to-paycheck can simply drown in the bills.
According to Pew Research, 45% of American Muslims have a household income of less than $30,000. Federal poverty guidelines state that an income of $30,313 for a family of four means that the family is just above poverty. With nearly half of Muslims in the US qualifying as “poor”, it is vital for our communities to see access to healthcare as a “Muslim issue.”
Pundits, analysts, advocates, and others have written much about the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Whatever its limitations, it is still the best opportunity now for people who were previously unable to get insurance to get coverage. While the standard picture of American Muslims are people who have full-time salaried employment as doctors, engineers, professors, or lawyers, many Muslims are either underemployed or in lines of work that do not provide adequate health insurance coverage. American Muslims drive taxis, work in retail, are line order cooks, and are migrant workers. 20% of American Muslims are self-employed, 29% are under-employed, and 17% are unemployed. Many of us from all backgrounds live paycheck to paycheck with little to no savings in place for hard times. One accident or illness can send any of us into a place where no amount of conferences or khutbahs on generosity or godliness can protect us from the ruthlessness of a life in poverty. We plan and Allah plans, and He is the best of planners.
We need to talk more about poverty and American Muslims. Usually, these topics are ones that we brush under the rug because we have our own versions of keeping up with the Joneses (or the Khans, as it may be for Muslims of South Asian background). Not only does this prevent Muslims in need from accessing some of the resources available from the state, but it also means that our communities do not prioritize making sure we have safety nets available for other Muslims. In practice, we end up shunning the poor – Muslims in our backyards here in the US – when in reality, we are putting our own akhirahs (Afterlife) in jeopardy by doing so.
The deadline to apply for health insurance for 2016 is coming up on January 31st. I am working with a team of people at MuslimARC and AMPH to encourage and provide support to local communities to get the word out about enrolling for health insurance coverage during the National Muslim Enrollment Weekend January 15th-18th.
We cannot assume that the Muslims we know – even in our suburban mosque communities – are insured. As an attorney and executive director of a fledgling organization, I was uninsured for months for the first time in my life once I left my salaried position last year. I was able to use the Marketplace through www.healthcare.gov to finally get coverage. The process took longer than it should have because my information was changing quickly and because I was overwhelmed with work and family obligations. The delay to get covered made me anxious knowing that I didn’t have a doctor to go to yet and that if I needed urgent medical care, I might be looking at hundreds or even thousands of dollars in medical bills, which was income that I personally was no longer generating. However, I didn’t have trouble understanding what I needed to do, and I knew that I had resources through my family. And when needed, I was able to make the phone calls and get questions answered. Not everyone in our communities are able to do so due to language barriers and other reasons and it’s important that our masajid and other organizations focus on providing assistance these last weeks before the enrollment period ends for 2016.
For more information on the National Enrollment Weekend, please go to http://www.amhp.us/nmew. We hope that announcements after jumuah prayer on January 15th can help get at least some people much needed coverage in each of our local communities.