Tonawanda News — It wasn’t like she didn’t have enough to worry about.
When Ronda Koban-Sartore was fighting for her life, battling the cancer that she died from last April, she was deeply worried how her husband, Dave, and their two children, Andrea, 12, and Zac, 17, would survive without her.
As she struggled to stay alive, hoping to attend her son’s graduation from high school, the costs of her illness grew, eroding the family’s finances so severely that Ronda — who hated owing money — began paying off medical expenses with credit cards.
She would often delay much-needed weekly treatments to remove the fluids that swelled her midsection, because her co-pay for each treatment was $150.
As the bills began to pile up, long-time family friend, Ann Marie Hepfer, stepped in to deal with the pile of bills that resulted from Ronda’s illness, which between co-pays, medical supplies, and lagging household expenses ranged around $100,000.
The pile of unpaid bills did not daunt Hepfer, who used to work as a bookkeeper at her family’s store, DiMino’s Tops Market in Lewiston. Still, she was appalled by the charges Ronda’s medical bills, especially the hospital expenses.
“Who allows these people to get away with charging these prices on medicine? There’s no way that one pill is $25,” she said. “No way.”
Friends were trying to talk Ronda into letting them hold a fundraiser for the family. She’d been working hard since she was a teen and she couldn’t bear the idea of needing help. She resisted as long as she could, Hepfer recalled. But eventually, Ronda had to leave her job as a judge’s clerk and the family lost its second income. Ronda never made it past the six month wait for Social Security. The family was forced to file for bankruptcy to deal with the growing debt.
Eventually, Hepfer told Ronda that there had to be a fundraiser, and it was planned for February. Ronda’s immune system was too fragile for her to attend, but a couple thousand of her closest friends gathered at Lew-Port High School and raised $50,000 to cover some of the family’s outstanding bills.
After Ronda died in April, Hepfer helped Dave organize his family’s expenses, but their Town of Lewiston home is up for sale and he and their two children will be moving to a smaller house.
Remi Gonzalez is a sort of expert at fundraisers. The owner of Valery Construction has a knack for organizing and he’s held at least two events a year since 1982 when he had a spiritual experience in Rome.
In 2013, he doubled his efforts and held four fundraisers. Three were for people who dealing with catastrophic events that resulted in bills nearly impossible to pay, including one for local boxer Nick Casal, after he was attacked by club-wielding assailant. Without health insurance, Casal was left with thousands in medical bills that the fundraiser helped to pay off.
Gonzalez also led efforts to raise money for a family whose son, a Niagara University student, died from an injury he suffered while on vacation. Another fundraiser was held to help pay the medical bills and expenses incurred during the illness of a Lewiston man who died in May.
“These fundraisers are very important,” Gozalez said, noting that beyond the costs of uncovered medical care, there are hidden costs inflicted upon families facing medical crisis, including days taken off of work by the caregivers, gasoline to and from all the doctor and hospital visits. But, mostly it’s the price of medical care. “The government, which is us, has to follow through on controlling or regulating the amount that can be charged for some of the medical procedures,” he said. “Where does it stop? It doesn’t.”
Sam Giambattista says he’s been lucky. He’s been battling stage four lung cancer for two years, and after being on disability for a year, he was forced to go on Medicaid. That helps with the medical bills and a supplemental insurance policy covers most of the rest of the expenses of his care, but not all. He has to pay about $400 every 28 days for his maintenance chemo-therapy. His insurance covers the rest of the $30,000 treatment price.
But, when he was first diagnosed at the Cleveland Clinic, the cost of his initial care was $17,000. None of it was covered by their insurance. He and his wife, Patricia, used the money they’d saved for a vacation in Italy to pay for his care there.
Sam, a carpenter, and Patricia, a dental assistant and personal trainer, are getting by. “Luckily, we’re not at the point it’s catastrophic cut back here and there, but it’s no big deal,” he said.
“I’m truly blessed,” said Sam, who noted that recent tests are showing his tumor has shrunk and that staff at the Roswell Park Cancer Center clinic in Amherst are touched by the miracle of his wellness. “Every time I go for my chemo, the chemo nurses see me and they cry,” he said.
But, he continues to be amazed at the cost of health care. He was stunned when told that a prescription for a drug to calm stomach ulcers caused by the chemotherapy, would cost him more than $500 out of pocket. Recently, during an out-of-town visit, he spiked a fever of 102, potentially dangerous for a cancer patient. The bill for his emergency room visit totaled $10,000. He was grateful that most was covered by his Medicaid and supplemental insurance. However, he believes something needs to be done to curb the cost of care.
“They’re charging too much for everything,” he said of the medical and pharmaceutical professions. “I understand you have to make a good living after all that schooling, but I believe that’s where the problem is.”HEALING HEALTH CARE This is the first installment in our two-part series examining the nation's health care as it impacts the lives of residents of the Niagara region. TODAY: Patients and their families deal with steep health care increases NEXT SUNDAY: Pharmacists, doctors cope with rising costs