March 27, 2020
Photo by Mayra Jimenez
This episode is part of a limited series of conversations with people who are being forced to make difficult decisions in a rapidly evolving situation with many unknowns.
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Listen to the conversation below or scroll down for the transcript and more information.
Dan Gorenstein: Mayra Jimenez was thriving.
Mayra Jimenez: I’m happy. I have a great dog, a steady job, health care, making a pretty good amount of money. I travel quite a bit. I have my 401K, I have my savings. I have everything that like the American dream is supposed to give you.
DG: Mayra is 35 and has worked as a server for the last three years at an upscale restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District.
MJ: A lot of us that work there, it’s a small staff, but we’re pretty much family. Hospitality is my life. I mean, I’m a person that’s of service. I love to host. I it gives me a chance to just make people happy.
DG: But like so many in the U.S., the coronavirus has upended Mayra’s life.
MJ: It feels like a rug just got pulled from under me. Everything that I’d been working for is kind of up in the air at this point.
DG: From the Annenberg Studio at the University of Pennsylvania, I’m Dan Gorenstein and this is Tradeoffs.
A few weeks ago, Mayra was on vacation in Arizona.
MJ: My partner Joe goes to Arizona every year. It’s baseball spring training. It’s sun. It’s fun. It’s drinking. It’s so much fun. And so I left to go visit him because he stays the whole month. I left March 8, on Sunday.
DG: The coronavirus was in the news, but still felt far away. Until it didn’t.
Donald Trump: We just attended a very important task force meeting on the virus that everybody is talking about all over the world. No matter where you go, that’s what’s on people’s minds.
MJ: By Wednesday or like Tuesday night, things had really developed quickly and there was more news coverage. I was starting to get stressed out, so I just wanted to be home.
DG: She got a flight back Thursday.
MJ: I had already started noticing mucus in my stool, which is like the first sign of a flare up. And I was like, fuck, like, this is not gonna be good.
DG: Mayra’s got ulcerative colitis, which gets bad when she’s stressed.
MJ: It’s a chronic disorder. I’m going to have it for my entire life. There is no cure. My immune system is constantly attacking my colon, creating these little ulcers which cause me to bleed internally without me knowing. But eventually I do know because all that stuff has to come out somewhere. When I’m having a flare up, I spend a lot of time going to the bathroom.
DG: Mayra spent the weekend splitting her time between talking to her doctors, getting tests and kind of freaking out.
MJ: Things are really ramping up in my body. I’m panicked about this COVID situation. I’m anxious, so I feel like I’m out of breath. And I am also have mucus and blood in my stool now. I am panicked.
DG: Finally Monday morning, her doctor calls her with a plan for her flare up, and she relaxes a little. Then, that afternoon she got a note from work.
MJ: Saying they’re closing the restaurant for the night.
DG: And what are you thinking when you hear that?
MJ: In my head, I’m just like, “We’re done.” I’m like, there’s no way we’re closing for the night. Like no. We’re done. Done. Done. Done. Then we get an email on Tuesday the 17th that we’re closing indefinitely and everybody’s being laid off. I just lost it. I was so upset, and I knew it was for the right reasons, I knew that we needed to close to keep everybody safe. But I was heartbroken.
DG: Tell me why you’re heartbroken.
MJ: I’m heartbroken because I have lost my job. My friends have lost their jobs, and I love that place. You know, as much as I love and hate going to work, I got to go to work and have fun. People celebrated birthdays, weddings, engagements, retirement. I got to be a part of people’s lives in a small way.
DG: And were you also like, damn well, what would I do about my rent? How am I gonna pay my bills? Or were you not even like that, not even on your mind?
MW: My first thing to come to mind was, “When is my health care going to end?” I have enough in savings where I can take care of my bills and my rent for a month or two. But I don’t have enough to take care of my prescriptions. So the medications that I’m on are really expensive, but they work really well and they keep my symptoms in remission.
DG: Mayra’s most critical prescription, the one she says she cannot live without, is called Lialda.
MW: And when I order it through Kaiser and I get 6 months supply, it’s $30. If I didn’t have insurance, it would be $1,500 a bottle and one bottle is one month. There is no way that I can be without that medication, and so I email my HR person on Tuesday morning, the 17th. And I said, hey, when is our health care going to end? Because I need to stock up on my prescriptions.
DG: She was also getting a ton of emails from her old job.
MW: They’ve been sending out all the emails with the with the unemployment and disability and all that stuff. But I mean, it was just so overwhelming. There was so many links, there were so many things to read that I just kind of put it away for that day. I’m like, I cannot. I can’t really comprehend this right now, I can’t even take it in. I’m just so upset.
DG: As upset as she was, Mayra knew she had to deal. The next day, she logged on to the website for Covered California, the state’s insurance exchange where people can also sign up for Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program.
MW: But I had questions. I’m like, I don’t know what the next steps are. I don’t know what’s going to happen. So there was a banner on the website that said, “If you want to talk to an enrollment specialist, sign this form and we’ll give you a call in 20 minutes.” I put my information in and somebody called me back.
Linda White: Hello, my name is Linda White. I am a certified insurance agent with Covered California returning your call.
MJ: Linda White. And I will never forget her name. As soon as I got on the phone with her, she was just the most comforting, sweet, just what I needed to hear.
LW: First of all, be assured that you will have health insurance. It will definitely start April 1.
MJ: The thing, she said to me, she’s like, I’ve had a lot of phone calls today with people like you that are scared. She’s like, but we’re here to help. She’s like, we are prepared.
LW: That’s what I’m here for. I’ll be walking you through the whole process.
MJ: And I just was like, Linda, you are an angel right now. You are everything that I need to hear because I am scared and I don’t know what to do, and so she walked me through the process, and she was very reassuring and she kept saying, you’re not going to remember any of this. I know it’s a lot. Anytime you get any information in the mail, you’re going to get a lot, call me. I’m here for you.
LW: As soon as we finish this call, I’m going to text you my business card so that you have all of my information so you can call me with any questions you might have.
MJ: And I just couldn’t believe that it was that easy. I was like, I must be dreaming, like, this is a nightmare. And here’s this person that’s like going to save me. She just made me feel like everything was going to be OK. And that’s all I needed. I just needed someone to just make me feel that way because I hadn’t felt that way in days.
DG: Can you explain, as somebody who has a chronic condition, as somebody who absolutely needs medication, why was this such an important moment for you?
MJ: Because I knew I was gonna be safe. I knew that if I needed help, I could get it. There’s so much unknown right now and there’s also so much unknown with my condition that it’s important for me to hold on to what I do know. And it’s the fact that I know that this treatment has been working for me and keeping me healthy, and I have that safety.
DG: Well, so it looks like so thanks in part to Linda White, thanks in part to the fact that you live in California, you are now on a path to having Medicaid. What is your biggest fear in the weeks ahead?
MJ: I think the unknown is terrifying. You know, like when this is all said and done and I keep saying when we’re on the other side of this. I have no idea what the other side looks like. I don’t know if the situation’s going to be where like restaurants opened back up and I have employment. And then not getting Medi-Cal. I don’t know. I’ve never applied for it. Linda said I qualified. I’m excited. I’m grateful. But I don’t have it in front of me. You know, I try to be very positive, I try to stay very hopeful, but it’s, it’s terrifying.
DG: Mayra, thank you very much for talking with us.
MJ: It’s my pleasure.
DG: We learned on Thursday, March 26, that 3.3 million people in the U.S. filed for unemployment in the last week. That’s many more Mayras who don’t have health care through their job anymore and will be looking to people like Linda for help.
But what they’ll find depends a lot on where they live.
In states that have expanded Medicaid and strengthened their individual marketplaces, a sturdier safety net awaits.
For others, the road ahead may be rockier.
I’m Dan Gorenstein, this is Tradeoffs.
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Additional Resources & Credits
COVID-19 Information and Updates
State Health Policy Responses to COVID-19
Eleven States Now Letting Uninsured Sign Up for Obamacare (Margot Sanger-Katz and Reed Abelson, New York Times; 2020)
Stopping the Spread of Coronavirus: What Federal and State Governments Can Do to Increase Access to Treatment and Prevention (Commonwealth Fund Briefing, 2020)
Coronavirus Response and the Affordable Care Act (Jennifer Tolbert, KFF, 2020)
Impact of COVID-19 on Employment
A Record 3.3 Million Americans Filed for Unemployment Benefits as the Coronavirus Slams Economy (Heather Long and Alyssa Fowers, Washington Post, 2020)
Coronavirus Threatens More Than 15 Million U.S. Hospitality Jobs (Andre Tatar, Bloomberg, 2020)
Music in this episode by Miscellaneous, courtesy of Badman Recording.
This episode was reported and produced by Leslie Walker. It was mixed by Ryan Levi.