Healthy journey

Sonya Austin Emerick’s trip through the insurance maze

Sonya Austin Emerick. Photo by Sarah Whiting.

A year and a half ago, Sonya Austin Emerick dropped her son off at day care at 5:30 a.m. and drove toward her job at a produce warehouse. Instead of going to work, though, she began looking for a building big enough to destroy the “big ol’ Cadillac” she was driving until she suddenly pictured her son’s face.

“I was looking for a building and passed Abbott Northwestern [hospital],” said Emerick, who is now 27. “When I saw my son’s face, I decided it would probably be a much better idea to check myself in.”

The pressure of living with schizoaffective disorder had become too much for Emerick. When she was 17 she was diagnosed with the mental illness, whose symptoms include episodic mood swings like mania and depression and audio-visual hallucinations. “I would be incapable of differentiating between reality and my perception of reality,” Emerick explained.

Her inability to function became more pronounced as Emerick got older and as her insurance became spotty. She had her first psychotic break when she was attending South High School in Minneapolis. At the time, Emerick was insured through her mother and also able to use the resources at the school clinic.

After graduating from high school, Emerick tried college but found the pressure of school too much to manage. When she dropped out she became uninsured.

Navigating the maze
Emerick tried to get resources from the county and was briefly insured, but navigating the system proved too complicated for her at that time.

“Navigating anything to do with the county is hell,” she said. “I mean absolutely no disrespect to the people who work there, because they can be helpful.” Still, getting insurance resources through the county can be a grueling and bureaucratic process-lots of complex paperwork and long wait time on phones.

County resources for the uninsured are out there, Emerick said, but they require a level of self-sufficiency that many uninsured patients may not have. For Emerick, it was hard to know which resources were available through the county and then, even more problematic, how to do the necessary paperwork on a regular schedule in order to hold on to her insurance.

Now, with experience and a caseworker to help her navigate the county, Emerick is more equipped than she was to take care of her health.

Emerick estimated she spent 75 percent of the time between the ages of 19 and 26 uninsured, and the remaining time underinsured. In those years she was never able to hold down a job for very long.

“I would start a job and be doing fine and then burn out very quickly,” Emerick said. “The pressures of work would start closing in and I’d think, ‘oh no I’m going through another crazy cycle’ where things would get worse.”

Now that Emerick has insurance, she can look back at the tenuous years of being underinsured and understand the psychological toll it was taking on her.

“You can’t overestimate how important it is to be insured,” she said, her voice wavering. “It’s really scary to think of how difficult it is to navigate [the system] and what it’s like living with the fear and having the experience of having to be on welfare.” The fear of having to go on welfare kept Emerick looking for work and trying to manage her illness without taking medications, which proved nearly fatal.

Going unmedicated meant Emerick had a hard time paying rent on time, holding down jobs, caring for her son, functioning in society and in her own home.

“I was a mess,” Emerick said.

Getting insurance. Getting treatment.
That was when her near suicide led her to get hospitalized for several weeks at Abbott Northwestern. The hospital gave her a caseworker, a psychiatrist and a therapist. She then connected with the University of Minnesota’s Community University Health Care Center (CUHCC).

Emerick is slowly getting her life back. She has moved back home with her parents where she believes she will remain indefinitely. Emerick also got on MFIP, the Minnesota welfare program, through which she is now insured.

“Getting all of those resources has felt like getting my life back,” Emerick said. “Talk to anyone who has known me for a long time and they will tell you that I am doing so much better now.” Emerick now works a few hours a week from home as a freelance graphic designer; CUHCC connected her with a pro-bono lawyer who is helping her file for lifelong disability insurance from the federal government. Having good health insurance means that she has also been able to go to the dentist for the first time in 10 years.

Still, Emerick worries about the future. She wonders what she will do when her five years on MFIP run out. What will happen if she doesn’t get disability benefits from the federal government.

In the meantime, though, Emerick is getting back on track and learning to function as a mother, a daughter and a worker again.

“I’ve learned that I need a community to function, especially living as a single mother with mental illness. But I’ve also learned now that I am not so limited by my mental illness that I can’t contribute to my community-and not just my network of friends and family-but our community at large. I now feel like I have skills and experiences to contribute and share, and that means that I’m a valuable member of community and of a family.”

The Minnesota Department of Health has an online guide to resources for free or low-cost health insurance programs and community clinics.

The General Assistance Medical Care (GAMC) serves low-income adults who have no dependent children under age 18 and who do not qualify for federal health-care programs. Funding to this program will be cut in 2010. In the meantime residents can still use this resource.

The University of Minnesota’s Community University Health Care Center (CUHCC) provides primary care services to children and low-income families in south Minneapolis and has a sliding scale for uninsured patients. In addition, CUHCC has an on-site Pro Bono Legal Clinic to help patients with legal matters.