CLEVELAND – A woman championed as the Obama administration's emblem for health care reform does not have to choose between her home and her health, according to officials at the Ohio hospital where she is being treated.
With a self-reported annual income of about $6,000, Natoma Canfield is a prime candidate for financial aid in the form of Medicaid — the federal health care program for low-income and disabled people — or charitable assistance.
And the Cleveland Clinic said it has no intention of putting out a lien on Canfield's house — or letting the billing process interfere with her treatment.
"It appears that I think she'll be fine," said Lyman Sornberger, the hospital's executive director of patient financial services. "By nature of the fact that she was not early on rejected by either program, that's a key indicator that she will most likely be eligible."
Canfield was stunned last month when she unsealed a handwritten letter from none other than the president himself. She had written to Obama before the holidays to request that he count her as a "statistic," as she put it, among the scores of Americans unable to afford health insurance — but she never expected to get a response.
"I still can't get over the thrill of opening that," said Canfield, 50, who is undergoing chemotherapy treatments for leukemia.
Obama traveled to northeast Ohio on Monday to champion Canfield's plight as proof of why health care reform is so urgently needed. The self-employed cleaning worker also stole the spotlight at Tuesday's White House press briefing, when she was mentioned several times by press secretary Robert Gibbs as a make-or-break vote on Obama's health care overhaul loomed over lawmakers.
"I think there are many that would want to conflate this process into something that's different than the product; that is different than the heart-wrenching stories of people, as I've said, like Natoma Canfield ... who made a decision to give up her health care to keep her house, a gamble that she's lost," Gibbs said.
But despite the grim reality of Canfield's fight against cancer, hospital officials say it's not the case that she can have either a home or her health.
Obama is not wrong in saying that a patient in Canfield's situation might have to choose between her home and health care, said Eileen Sheil, a spokeswoman for Cleveland Clinic.
"But this patient is probably not the best example of someone in that situation, although we've have patients in that situation who haven't yet qualified for Medicaid, or didn't have the resources" to pay for care, Sheil said.
Canfield, who successfully battled breast cancer 16 years ago, collapsed last week while she was carrying a bucket of grain on a friend's farm, where she had worked for years. She was rushed to Medina Hospital, part of the Cleveland Clinic regional hospital system, where she was told she had acute leukemia and went to the Clinic for treatment.
Like any patient who walks through the Clinic's doors without medical coverage, Canfield was immediately assigned an adviser to help assess whether she was eligible for financial aid, hospital officials said.
As Obama has recounted in recent days, Canfield stopped paying for health insurance this year after her premium more than doubled, costing $8,500 a year, she said. Her former insurance carrier, Anthem, would not verify the particulars associated with Canfield's policy without a privacy release.
Canfield said Tuesday that she had just met with her adviser in her hospital room before undergoing a round of chemotherapy in the afternoon.
"I will have to apply for Social Security disability and then something called Medicaid," she said.
Asked whether she had understood what Medicaid was, she said: "I heard of it but I didn't really realize what it was."
The idea that Canfield would have to give up her home originated first in the letter she wrote to the president, in which she explained that she feared she would have to sell it in order to pay her medical bills.
Canfield has racked up thousands of dollars in debt from previous medical treatments, including a recent gall bladder infection, said her sister, Connie Anderson.
"She was always raised to believe that you took care of yourself," Anderson said, explaining why her sister had not tried to apply for financial assistance before. "And she didn't want to be, you know, part of the system."
Because Canfield was self-employed, there are no records of her business, and she said most of the people whose houses she cleaned are now in nursing homes or have died. She said that she doesn't have any savings left, and that with at least a month of chemotherapy still to go, she won't be generating income anytime soon.
"Yes, there are possibilities," she said of the possibility of financial help. "But it's going to be devastating even with being helped out. It's just not the same as life was before."
However, Canfield's fears that she could lose her home — if, for example, the hospital tried to put a lien on it — are not necessarily unfounded, Sornberger said.
"There are other hospitals that will do that," he said. "There's nothing in the industry that says you can't do it. So she could go 5 miles to some other facility and find that they do have that practice in place."
And Canfield pointed out that even if she does get financial aid, it could take weeks before that money kicks in. Despite the hospital's assurances, her original fears remain.
"The taxes still need to be paid," she said. "I have a home equity line that needs to be paid back every month."
As for critics who claim Canfield's experience has been overblown for use in partisan politics, she simply shrugged. The importance of health care reform, she said, is so much bigger than her own story.
"There's a million stories just like mine that need to be told," she said. "I'm going to fight like a tiger to keep a future. I want a future."