Kansas mother makes plea for Medicaid expansion after donations spare her from death

TOPEKA — For months after being diagnosed with an advanced stage of uterine cancer, Shelby Fehrenbacher resigned herself to death.

Fehrenbacher, a 29-year old mother of four living in Topeka, was diagnosed with the deadly disease last year. Doctors told her she needed surgery to survive, but she could not afford the $4,000 cost.

During her time of greatest need, she found herself in the Medicaid gap. Fehrenbacher made too much money working to qualify for KanCare — the program through which the state administers Medicaid — but didn’t earn enough to fully fund her own treatment.

“I was just so depressed,” Fehrenbacher said. “I would look at my four children every day and just decide that I am just going to die as peacefully as I can. I don’t know what else to do here.”

Unable to afford the treatment and out of hope, she found herself in a similar situation to hundreds of thousands of Kansans and millions nationwide. Fehrenbacher was lucky to have supporters fund her treatment, but she said the ordeal was indicative of inequities in health care.

National estimates indicate more than 2 million poor uninsured adults fall into the same coverage gap as Fehrenbacher in states like Kansas that have not expanded Medicaid. If the state were to expand the KanCare program, an estimated 132,000 people would gain access to Medicaid in the state, including 50,000 previously uninsured Kansas residents.

Kansas is one of 12 states yet to expand the health care program under the Affordable Care Act.

Without adequate coverage, Fehrenbacher was sure she would die. Her friends and family had other ideas, crowdfunding the money needed for the treatment and surprising her with a check.

While she was eventually able to receive the financial help she needed for the treatment, the ordeal has left her questioning how and why health insurance coverage is not more readily accessible to those in need.

“We still have so many people inside this Medicaid gap who are just basically succumbing to death because they can’t afford health insurance,” Fehrenbacher said. “I feel like as the richest nation in the world that shouldn’t be happening. We shouldn’t be in a position where people don’t have health insurance because their state has not expanded Medicaid that would allow them to be able to afford insurance.”

Had she been covered from the beginning, Fehrenbacher said she would have been able to receive routine checkups, and doctors likely would have identified the cancer before it progressed.

While the treatment in March has left her in a stronger position, she is not out of the woods. Uterine cancer has a high recurrence rate, and with her immune system still recuperating from treatment, her risk of infection with COVID-19 is high.

Fehrenbacher called on Republican legislators who have blocked Medicaid expansion in Kansas to take action during a Moral Monday online demonstration held in October by the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.

The Poor People’s Campaign is a nationwide revival of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 movement working to uplift poor and impacted communities. Led by Rev. William Barber II and Rev. Liz Theoharis, of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice, the campaign has prioritized the expansion of Medicaid in states yet to do so.

“Shelby’s story is one of the millions of stories of folks that despite the medical technology existing, despite treatment and cures for cancer and the other kind of health problems, folks can simply not afford health care,” Theoharis said. “Their lives are becoming completely expendable in the eyes of the HMOs and our society at large.”

In September, the Poor People’s Campaign of Kansas held rallies in Kansas City and Pittsburg demanding the expansion of Medicaid. The marches condemned the state and federal governments for allowing thousands to die, disproportionately among marginalized communities.

Amid the pandemic and rapidly worsening case numbers, leaders of the Kansas campaign said expansion was more critical than ever before.

“We demand Medicaid expansion in Kansas. We have the data and so do the legislators,” said Letiah Fraser, a convener for the Poor People’s Campaign of Kansas. “We need to provide for those unprotected during a crisis like this coronavirus pandemic.”