Family blames the “system” for death of their son

By Karen S. Lynch

The Galesburg Zephyr


   Bill Fair was working for the American dream. For over 38 years, Bill had a good job at Butler Manufacturing. The work was hard but it paid well with benefits, including retirement and health care. Bill’s job helped support his wife, Donna and their family – including two daughters, Eleanor and Madeline and their son Eric.

   Right after high school, Eric also went to work at Butler, working close to eight years at the steel manufacturing plant until he lost his job in 2001 during a layoff. Eric worked for several temporary employment agencies but never acquired 90 days of employment, or a chance to receive any employer-provided health care benefits. Because Eric had no insurance, he avoided going to a doctor and he had no primary physician.

   In 2006, Eric began experiencing chest pain. An EKG in the emergency room found no apparent heart attack. With no additional tests, Eric went home when the doctor told him nothing was wrong. In February of 2008, chest pain once again sent Eric to the emergency room. Bill said his son received a diagnosis of a cold, given some drugs and sent home without any blood tests, an EKG or more probing tests that could have diagnosed the real cause of Eric’s chest pain.

   On March 17, 2008, Eric Died at age 33 of a massive heart attack. An autopsy revealed 80-90% plaque blockage in the arteries of Eric’s young heart. With a comprehensive family history, or a primary physician health advocate, doctors may have learned Eric’s mother had a long family history of high cholesterol.

   The same day Eric died in Trinity Medical Center in Rock Island, his mother was in another room of the hospital with her own health problems. “While my husband was in one room with my son, I was in room six of the same hospital.” Upon hearing about her son’s death, Donna Fair also had a massive heart attack, requiring three stints in her own blocked arteries.

   Bill Fair took early retirement when the Butler plant closed after the business sold to Blue Scope Steel, an Australian-based company who moved the Butler jobs out of the country to India, China and Mexico. Fair also lost his health care coverage due to the high cost. Bill received a letter last week informing him he was also losing his life insurance.

   Despite being short of the Medicare age – now just 61 – Bill said he had no choice but to opt out of increasingly expensive health care he could not afford on his pension. His Butler health care premiums went from $486 a month to $1700 with a $3,000 deductible.

   Illinois has an equally expensive two-year temporary CHIP program for health insurance for displaced workers with a $1750 premium and $3,000 deductible. Private insurance is even more expensive. Bill said he had to go back to work part-time at $8.00 an hour just to put food on the table.

   “We have no insurance and have pre-existing conditions.” Donna said, her shaky voice chocking back tears, “We can’t get insurance even if we could afford it.” Donna became visibly upset when she spoke about their continuing health and financial problems. “People need to step up and have themselves heard.”

   U.S. Congressman, Phil Hare (D-Rock Island) accompanied Bill and Donna Fair to Knox County Health Department to tell their story. Hare said he wanted to give affordable health care a public face, also making stops in Moline and Macomb. There are currently over 47 million uninsured Americans, with the number climbing every day, according to Hare.

   Rep. Hare has been working with Congress to provide universal health care for all Americans. “It’s really a black eye on our nation.” Hare has repeatedly said health care is not a privilege but a right. “When I get back in session I’m not inclined to wait for a Presidential nominee to be complete. We need to give people some kind of health care.”

   Greg Chance, Knox County Health Director said over 15% of Knox County residents  have no health insurance coverage. Currently there are 1.7 million uninsured in Illinois. The facility in Galesburg is currently expanding to try to fulfill some of those health care needs to uninsured citizens in Knox County, especially hard hit with the closure of local factories and service employees who cannot afford private-pay insurance.

   Chance said the health care crisis of the uninsured is also affecting recruiting of medical providers to the area. Hare hinted at a possibility of offering medical students loan forgiveness if they practice medicine in underserved small communities for at least five years.

   Children are especially hard-hit victims of the lack of affordable health care nationwide, including dental care now provided at the facility on Fremont Street. Illinois does have a program for poor, uninsured children. Hare has pushed a proposed increase in the S-CHIP program for uninsured children. The bill has been vetoed twice by President Bush, despite full funding by a proposed tax on cigarettes.

   Unfortunately, there are thousands of heart-wrenching stories like those faced by hard-working Americans like the Fair family, especially with the plant closures in our area. Through no fault of their own, because of the loss of a job that once provided health care benefits, they now face severe financial hardships at a point in life they should be enjoying retirement.

   The Fair family has had little time to cope with their son’s death a few weeks ago in March. Bill said they have to borrow money to pay for their son’s funeral expenses and bills, as they have gone through all of their savings. While they have received some financial assistance, the family is now $140,000 in debt. Currently the family has 14 separate bills with more coming.

   Donna is returning to the hospital on Tuesday to undergo another surgery for an aneurism. “We thought we were starting to get ahead a little, paying what little we can on each bill and here we go again on the merry-go-round.”

   Bill blames his son’s death on a lack of health insurance. “If he had health insurance they would have kept looking to see what was causing the pain. I feel if he had health insurance he would still be alive today.” Bill hung his head, his voice chocking back tears. His wife Donna grasped her husband’s callused left hand to comfort him. Bill tried to compose himself – while still firmly clutching his wife’s hand – he looked sternly ahead. “This should never happen in this country. God didn’t take our son – I believe our system took our child.”