By Kathleen Ellyn
Wallowa County Chieftain
Without expanded Oregon Health Plan coverage, Joni Herb, 61, of Joseph would be facing death or bankruptcy. And the crazy part is that the cancer she was diagnosed with last spring has a 90 to 95 percent cure rate with treatment.
Fortunately, Herb retains expanded coverage under the Oregon Health Plan and in another few weeks, she hopes to be “looking at this in the rear view mirror.”
Medical interests fear that if Measure 101 does not pass, other Oregonians may face the same choice –– life or bankruptcy. Some may not have assets that make bankruptcy a choice. Without insurance coverage, they may die.
The Jan. 23 special election on Measure 101 will address the issue.
The legislature approved a law asking insurance companies and hospitals pay small fees to finance a continuation of expanded coverage, which began in 2014. A portion of the law was successfully referred, allowing voters to have the final say on the tax.
Statewide, more than 366,000 Oregonians are impacted and 700-800 Wallowa County residents by one estimate.
These are low-income adults, children, families and individuals with disabilities who were covered when the Affordable Care Act expanded Medicaid coverage to those earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.
For Herb, it was a life-saver.
Herb is a retired special education teacher but because she worked her entire 25-year career in Oregon for a nonprofit, she wasn’t enrolled in the Oregon Public Employees Retirement System. Private insurance often was not affordable.
She and her partner of 23 years, Karen Sternadel, 64, and their adopted daughter, Bella, 9, all moved to Joseph in 2015, so that Bella could be raised in Wallowa County.
The couple hadn’t planned on adopting, but one thing led to another, and Bella came into their life.
“I love having Bella,” Herb said. “She’s a big piece of my life.”
Since then, they’ve lived on their joint retirement savings and Joni’s part-time work as a window washer.
They were making it work, bringing up a daughter in the best environment they could and becoming active in the community.
Then, last spring Joni felt a lump in her neck.
She set aside checking that out to deal with her mother’s passing, and it was August before she went in. Dr. Ken Rose performed a biopsy of the lump at Wallowa Memorial Hospital.
She learned she had a very rare cancer: squamous cell carcinoma, or cancer of the tonsils. Herb doesn’t smoke or drink, the most common causes, but says she took plenty of second-hand smoke growing up.
Soon she was off to Walla Walla for PET scans, CAT scans, surgery –– the works. Her ear nose and throat specialist chose aggressive treatment.
She’s been in treatment since the first week of December. She is now just two weeks away from the end of chemo and a five-days-a-week regemin of radiation.
“This is where it gets real tough,” she said.
Although squamous cell carcinoma will kill you if not treated, the survival rate is high if treated.
“We would have had to sell our house,” Herb said. “I don’t think I should have to sell our house to afford treatment. Had I not had OHP, I wouldn’t have been able to do treatment.”
Joni had 11 nodules taken out in Walla Walla and chemo and radiation followed. The chances are Joni will be fine, thanks in large measure to her access to Medicaid.
“Oh my gosh, OHP has supported me through this much better than any private insurance I had,” she said. “I’ve worked since I was 10 and paid into my company’s health plans all my life. Nothing has been as good as this. This has been remarkable insurance.”
She’s 40 pounds lighter due to chemo, pretty much weak as a kitten and tied to yearly checkups for the rest of her life. But she is alive and on the road to recovery.