Adams, 42, lives in Reno, NV. She has stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, which has spread to her bones and liver. While she eventually paid off the balance, the debt for it continues to haunt her credit rating.

INDEBTED: With stage 4 breast cancer that has spread to other parts of her body, Adams' medical debt is as persistent as the chemo she will have to endure for the rest of her life. Photo: Courtesy of Shelby Adams

The face of medical debt

“Medical debt needs to be treated differently than consumer debt,” says Adams, who will be on chemo for the rest of her life. Her monthly medical bills total $5,500, currently covered by insurance. In a few months, she’ll have to pay 20 percent of that fee when her insurance changes.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” says an emotional Adams. She adds that, currently, she is on disability and unable to work. Her monthly income of $1,600 doesn’t cover her bills, including medical costs, rent, groceries and gas to get to doctor’s appointments.

A larger problem

“The number one thing people call in about is they can’t afford the gas to get to their appointment,” says Caitlin Donovan, director of outreach and public affairs for the National Patient Advocate Foundation, explaining the average patient needs $19.60 for fuel. “You can’t afford to cancel the appointment and it just keeps getting worse and worse.”

Donovan says 1 in 5 American families struggle to pay medical debt each year. Finance website NerdWallet says 3 in 5 bankruptcies are due to medical debt. While more people are covered under the Affordable Care Act, Donovan says it’s time to address the high cost of care.

“Prices are going up dramatically and insurance networks are getting smaller and insurers are increasingly pushing the large percentage of the cost of care on to the patients,” she says, advising consumers to contact lawmakers demanding change.

“Dan Maccoux says between 1996 through 2004, their out of pocket medical expenses were $277,000.”

The Maccoux family

Cathy and Dan Maccoux, who live in the Minneapolis area, have been paying ongoing medical bills for 20 years for two of their daughters, each with a different chronic condition. Daughter Olivia was born three months premature, with hydrocephalus, a condition characterized by too much fluid on the brain.

“She’s had over 120 brain surgeries, she’s been in the hospital hundreds and hundreds of days,” says Cathy Maccoux of Olivia, who is now 20 and a college junior with daily headaches and recurring seizures. Maccoux’s other daughter Tracey was diagnosed at age 11 with a chronic pain condition. Now 26, Tracey is a swim coach. One of her treatments costs $30,000 a month.

Dan Maccoux says between 1996 through 2004, their out of pocket medical expenses were $277,000. They’ve financed the bills on a mortgage, second mortgage and open lines of credit. “It’s really like making two house payments per month,” he says. “You struggle everyday to get by.”

LIFE PRICE:  As one daughter underoes hundreds of surgeries, another struggles with chronic pain and the Maccoux family faces hundreds of thousands in medical expenses. Photo: Courtesy of the Maccoux Family

Cynthia’s prescriptions

Cynthia’s 19-year-old daughter has a progressive liver disease that affects her liver and colon. Doctors prescribed eight pills a day of a generic antibiotic. The problem? The medicine costs $15,000 a month and Cynthia’s insurance called to discuss the prescription.

“On an ongoing basis this is going to be a huge expense for the insurance company,” she says. “I’m hoping someday they’ll find a cure and we won’t have to do this, but for now, this is what we have.” Cynthia pays $36,000 in annual insurance premiums, plus a $3,500 a year deductible per family member, as well as prescription copays and travel costs.

The insurance company agreed to pay for the prescription. The medicine is working for the college student and lacrosse player. A lawyer, Cynthia says her career prepared her to navigate medical issues. “You have to educate yourself and be your best advocate,” she says.

A way forward

“It can happen to anybody,” says Cathy Maccoux, crediting being optimistic with keeping her family together and well adjusted. “Have a positive attitude.”

“If you’re faced with a bill you can’t afford, ask for help,” adds Donovan, who urges consumers to work with medical providers and insurance companies. “Don’t assume you have to pay the whole bill. Ask for a payment plan. Ask if there are scholarships.”