Jack Rowe couldn’t speak a sentence, couldn’t walk without help, could only rub the sides of his head and stare blindly at his cell phone. He was suffering a stroke. His mind, mobility, possibly his life, depended on getting care. Now.
Simi Valley Hospital was 4.3 miles away. The 57-year-old former rodeo cowboy who barely makes rent could get help at the emergency room. Because he is uninsured, that care could bring a bill of $15,000, probably more.
In a healthcare safety net that can tear like paper because of the uninsured falling through it, the only place Rowe was guaranteed care he could afford was in Ventura — 36 miles, two highways and 29 traffic lights away.
At the Ventura County Medical Center, uninsured people who make less than $21,660 a year receive care through a county-run health plan called Access Coverage Enrollment. Rowe joined the plan three years ago after a doctor told him that unless he started getting care, he might as well give up.
“I hadn’t taken my insulin in I don’t know how long,” Rowe said. “He just flat told me I was on the verge of dying.”
Once a construction worker, his only income comes from patching walls, washing cars and other odd jobs. ACE covered him when he ended up in the hospital because of kidney stones. It covered him for diabetes, high blood pressure and a thyroid condition.
Wiley Live knew it would also cover a stroke.
Rowe’s problems began at breakfast. Live checked on him a few hours later. He was in bed but didn’t really know where he was. He was breathing normally but answered questions only with a yes or no. He changed out of his pajamas as if his feet were dipped in concrete.
Live, 52, who’s also enrolled in ACE, didn’t see a choice. He knew his friend had no money and had suffered strokes in his past. Deciding Rowe’s life wasn’t in jeopardy but that he needed help, Live unfolded him into the passenger seat of a ‘95 Buick LeSabre and headed on a journey to the Ventura County Medical Center.
They didn’t talk. Wearing jeans and a T-shirt, Rowe was still out of it. They tracked Highway 118 as it changes from a six-lane freeway to a country road. They zipped by manicured golf courses and farm stands that sell avocados. They flew by three electronic signs that spat out their speed as they passed.
Finally, 45 minutes after they started, they pulled into the emergency room’s traffic circle. Rowe was rushed inside where doctors and nurses hooked up an IV, discovered his blood pressure was alarmingly high and gave him medicine to break up clots that could block the blood to his brain. After a few minutes, he started to respond.
“How did I get here?” he asked.
Ask his doctor, Asra Siddiqui of the Sierra Vista Family Medical Clinic in Simi Valley, about where a person in the same situation should go and she doesn’t hesitate.
“Nearest hospital. No doubt in my mind about it,” she said. “Time is of the essence.”
A year later, the stroke and the drive still swallowed by the 12-hour black hole in his memory, Rowe said his friend made the right decision in hauling him across the county. He cited one reason. The bill was only $200.
Because he has bills and no money, Rowe measures healthcare solely on what it costs.
Funding for his ACE program expires on Aug. 31. ACE leaders believe more funding will come. They talk too about other safety net programs that allow diabetics to get medication at discounted prices or at no charge at all.
But without ACE, Rowe thinks his life will revert to the days when healthcare was beyond his budget.
“If I lose ACE, I’ll be dead inside of a year,” he said. “It’ll be a lot shorter than that.”