By Marisa Way
I had never heard of 2-1-1 before I became a caseworker in Texas.
New to my role and the community I was working in, I was unfamiliar with what nonprofits and services were available for my clients where we lived. I was my clients’ first line of defense in what often felt like a very steep climb to stability.
I needed a place I could turn to give my clients the resources they needed. The 2-1-1 Help Center was that place.
When my clients’ minimum wage jobs couldn’t fill their pantries, or their kids’ bellies, I called 2-1-1 to help find a food pantry that was open when they got off work. When my clients’ past traumas were affecting their daily lives, and one setback felt like an insurmountable mountain, I called 2-1-1 to see what free or low-cost counseling services were available. When my clients finally landed that new job, but couldn’t afford their new work uniforms, I called 2-1-1 to see if any clothing banks could help us out.
2-1-1 offered my clients immediate and tangible solutions. Their impossible situations became possible.
Eventually, my own circumstances brought me to Denver. Not long after moving, I began working in Mile High United Way’s 2-1-1 Help Center. Once the caseworker calling in to 2-1-1, I was now the person finding solutions for people who needed help.
In 2017, I had been working in 2-1-1 for almost two years. In that time, nearly 160,000 people had reached out to Mile High United Way for assistance paying their rent, filing their taxes, getting back-to-school supplies for their kids, and more. My favorite days were problem-solving with my team to find unique solutions that could help someone through a difficult problem.
The most memorable person I was able to help in 2-1-1 was my dad.
My dad attended college in Colorado, and always planned on returning in retirement to ski, bike, and golf at elevation. He worked from a young age to put himself through high school and college. He was successful and adventurous in his career, finally landing in the financial sector, where his specialty was retirement plan administration.
My dad always stressed the importance of planning for retirement from a young age. While I was working in 2-1-1, my dad was able to realize his dream, and retire in Colorado at the base of the Rockies.
A few months after he retired, my dad fell off a curb and cracked his hip. This is how doctors found his cancer. He was diagnosed with Stage IV Lymphoma cancer. While my family was reeling from this diagnosis, my dad became increasingly worried over the cost of treatment. He had carefully planned for many things in his retirement, but nobody plans for cancer.
My dad worked for a while after joining Medicare, so he had not yet enrolled in a Medicare supplement program. Typically, Medicare requires the enrollee to pay about 20% of all medical costs out-of-pocket, after meeting their yearly deductible.* While 20% is manageable for an annual checkup or minor procedures, it can be crushing on top of a cancer diagnosis.
In fact, a recent study released by the American Cancer Society stated that over half of all cancer survivors face financial hardships that affect them materially, psychologically, or behaviorally. These hardships even cause some patients to forgo their lifesaving treatments.**
The feeling of not being able to help my dad when he needed it the most was devastating. I was so focused on what I couldn’t do to help, that I nearly forgot my 2-1-1 training. Out of the thousands of resources available to 2-1-1 clients, maybe one could help my dad.
I dove into 2-1-1’s database. Out of nearly 7,500 services, I found one for the State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) in my dad’s county. SHIP provides Medicare counseling, so I sent their number to my dad. He called and they said that unfortunately, with a pre-existing condition like cancer, he would not be able to enroll in a Medicare supplement program until the next enrollment period – over seven months away. By the time my dad would be able to enroll, he would be seven months into expensive treatments, procedures, and hospital stays.
Then, a few minutes later, SHIP called him back. They said there was a program available, one that could enroll him right away and reduce his out-of-pocket expenses to a manageable amount. And, this program accepted his “pre-existing condition.”
One more search had led to a solution. I’ll never forget my dad saying that he felt saved.
The truth is that was still the beginning of my dad’s journey. There were many more months of waiting for doctor’s calls, lost sleep, caregivers doing the best they could, and long hospital stays. It was painful. It was scary. But, just as my family had wished, my dad was able to focus on getting better and not draining his retirement fund to pay for cancer treatments.
Today, my dad is cancer-free. After getting the all-clear from his doctors, he joined a LIVESTRONG fitness program, through his local YMCA, for cancer survivors. That program was his final referral from 2-1-1.
Of his experience, my dad said, “While SHIP eased my concerns about my cancer treatments, the LIVESTRONG program was essential to my recovery. It was run by caring, thoughtful people who helped me regain my strength after months of tough treatments. I wouldn’t have found either of these programs if not for 2-1-1.”
Today my dad is hiking, biking, and golfing. He is enjoying retirement. And he is healthy.
Mile High United Way’s 2-1-1 Help Center is a statewide community resource that connects individuals and families to critical resources including food, shelter, rental assistance, childcare, healthcare, and so much more. 2-1-1 Community Resource Navigators help callers by assessing their needs and then matching them with the best and closest resources in their community.
Learn how you can support Mile High United Way’s 2-1-1 Help Center.
*Medicare Out-of-Pocket Costs You Should Expect to Pay
**The next fight for many cancer survivors? Beating back financial hardships.