WASHINGTON (CN) - Setting the stage for a high-stakes floor fight over health care, three insured Americans gave emotional testimony in Congress on Thursday about their battles with insurers to stay alive. A breast cancer survivor testified that although insured, she wound up with a $40,000 medical bill and about $100,000 in credit card debt. Focused on survival, she adopted the view, "If I don't die, I will just deal with this later."
"Expenses were mounting in a way that I had not foreseen," witness Catherine Howard told the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on Thursday.
Howard thought her maximum out-of-pocket expenses would be $5,000, but says the insurer told her most of the fees for her care did not count towards that cap.
"I have a master's degree," Howard said. "I couldn't make sense of that policy."
About 46 million Americans are without health insurance, but the number doesn't include the underinsured, who are defined as having inadequate insurance.
There appeared to be no partisan divisions when representatives expressed their disbelief and sympathy for the witnesses, and the need to change the system.
"There are many of us on this side of the isle who have also supported health care reform," Oregon Ranking Member Greg Walden said. "There needs to be a change here. There's no doubt about it."
Pennsylvania Democrat Mike Doyle agreed. "The need for health insurance reform is so obvious," he said.
Michigan Democratic Chairman Bart Stupak said that in his state, the annual family health insurance premium rose 78 percent between 2000 and 2007, while wages grew only 4.6 percent during the same period.
He said the average health insurance policy now costs $13,125 a year, which makes up 34 percent of the median household income in Stupak's district.
"As the cost of health insurance skyrockets, more and more Americans are finding that they can only afford bare bones policies, leaving them one illness, one accident away from bankruptcy," Stupak said.
David Null, who also testified, said he had specifically requested insurance "for the big 'oh no,'" but when his daughter had to undergo a $500,000 liver transplant, he learned that his daughter's insurance would only pay a maximum of $25,000.
"This was the big 'oh no' that I thought I was buying protection from," he said. "Being underinsured is the same as being uninsured."
The family decided to go on Medicaid retroactively, but they had to lower their cumulative income to $16,130 a year to qualify.
Their daughter is covered by her teacher mom's insurance, but the girl may still be haunted by her pre-existing condition when she searches for her own coverage.
The third witness, Nathan Wilkes, said he was insured by group coverage from his work, but that his premium rates and deductibles rose dramatically throughout his company after his son was treated for severe hemophilia.
Wilkes said the high cost of treatment for his son, which reached $500,000 in a year, made the company's coverage so unusable that one of Wilkes' coworkers chose to have a friend stitch his leg up "on the kitchen table" instead of going to the doctor.
Wilkes ultimately decided to leave the company.
"You are emblematic of what could happen to anyone in our country," Illinois Democrat Jan Shakowsky said to the panel.
The subcommittee that held the hearing is part of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
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