We’re pleased to post the following guest opinion from our long-term care leader, Maria Gunderman in the Shenandoah Sentinel.
August 3, 2023
Marie Gunderman is a personal care assistant at the Shenandoah Manor Nursing Center in on East Washington Street in Shenandoah.
My coworker recently told me that five months after she got a hysterectomy surgery, she still has $46,000 in pending costs. That’s double our annual salary as caregivers in our nursing home. It also doesn’t include the $800 that my coworker had to pay upfront on the day of the surgery.
The shocker? These kinds of steep costs are what it’s like with a health insurance plan – our nursing home employer’s plan.
My coworker’s scars from surgery have healed, but she checks her outstanding balance in the hospital’s portal everyday to see if the insurance has finally figured out how much she will have to pay. Not knowing what insurance will cover, months after the actual medical procedure, weighs heavy on her. Like my other coworkers, she dreads the day when the hospital will send her bills to collections – and possibly sink her credit.
Caregivers like me are predominantly women. As we grow older, we’re supposed to get screenings such as mammograms every year to spot problems before they get life-threatening. Some of us have family members who are breast cancer survivors, so doctors recommend we get mammograms every 6 months. When my coworker recently went to get a mammogram, she was sent a bill for over $1,000 despite our insurance papers saying it’s a 100% covered service. Insurance still hasn’t gotten back with a clear answer.
Preventing diseases like breast cancer shouldn’t feel like a luxury that we’re not sure we can afford. We shouldn’t be in a position where we have to choose between paying for a mammogram or paying the food bills.
Nursing home workers are used to the stress of caring for our residents every day. We’re trained for it. But we’re not used to the uncertainty of whether we’ll be able to afford to take care of our own bodies.
This job already takes a brutal toll on workers’ bodies, spirits, and mental health.
In 2020, working in nursing homes was officially named the most dangerous job in the country. It’s why last year, my coworkers and I formed our union to have a voice in our work conditions and resident care.
Then, COVID hit. Going to work in the facility felt like going to war. A pre-existing national staffing crisis was made catastrophic. I saw the pandemic make people leave this profession completely. People told me that they felt like risking their health was no longer worth the subpar pay and benefits.
With even less staffing, my coworkers and I show up for our shifts with mental armor, prepared to care for 20 or 30 residents on our own. We rush to make sure each resident is woken up, fed, bathed, receives medication, and uses the bathroom.
All of us signed up to work here so we could take care of our close-knit community. In this town, my residents don’t just feel like family. Sometimes they actually are family. I wish I had more quality time to spend with our residents – to crack a few jokes or have a deeper conversation about the history they’ve seen.
We need more caregivers at Shenandoah Manor. But people don’t want to work here when they could get paid more and get better health benefits at the other nursing home down the road.
After our home’s new owner, Priority Healthcare Group, put us on their insurance plan, taking care of our health has become a new stress and workload.
We don’t make enough to afford the high out-of-pocket costs for regular services like blood work, eye exams, and dental cleanings. It’s hard to know what the estimated medical costs will be when we don’t know which providers are in-network.
One of my coworkers is now being hounded by collections for a $250 bloodwork bill that she didn’t expect and plan for.
When Priority bought our facility last year, we were excited to form our union and work with Priority to increase wages, improve health insurance, and recruit and retain staff. We’ve been on Priority’s default insurance since January, but now that we are bargaining our first union contract, we have the opportunity to agree on a new healthcare plan – one that lets us take care of ourselves so we can keep providing our residents with the best quality care.
Sometimes it feels like my coworkers and I can never move forward. If we make progress on wages, the out-of-pocket healthcare costs still slide us back down the mountain.
Right now, Priority can agree on both in our new union contract: higher wages and quality health insurance with more affordable costs. We’ll be able to start retaining and recruiting rather than losing staff.
Last year, nursing home workers helped Priority get $25 million in annual funding from the Pennsylvania budget, money that comes from hard-working taxpayers like you, me, and our community.
All we’re asking is that companies like Priority start taking care of the people who take care of our community’s most vulnerable loved ones.