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How I Navigated The Healthcare System Alone When My Husband Was Diagnosed With Cancer

Kara Duckworth  |  February 17, 2021

I was suddenly in charge of … everything. Here's a look at how I navigated the healthcare system to get to a better place financially.

Women should be in control of their financial situation. Even when navigating the healthcare system. 

It’s a statement that every woman has likely heard before, and something that I hope all women are working towards, even if we are married and have wonderfully financially savvy partners we can rely on. Because the truth is that women must be prepared to handle their finances completely on our own, no matter our relationship status. There’s an oft-quoted statistic from the U.S. Census Bureau that the median age of widowhood across all ethnicities is 59.4 for a first marriage, and 59.4 is significantly younger than most women would expect. Needless to say, I was certainly not thinking it was possible that I would find myself widowed at 34.  

As you might have guessed by my being a financial planner, I was the “responsible for our money” person in our marriage. My husband and I discussed our financial decisions jointly, but I handled paying the household bills and overall budgeting. So that should have made me a very well-prepared woman to handle anything financial, right? I would have agreed with that statement prior to December 8, 2004.

LISTEN: HerMoney Podcast: Navigating The Healthcare System And Being Your Own Advocate 

My husband and I had been married just over a year.  We both had jobs we intended to keep until we retired.  We were saving for a down payment on a home, knew what our credit scores were, paid our bills on time and had monthly meetings to talk about our finances.  I felt very secure about how we (more specifically, I) was handling our family finances. But on that December day in 2004 I got a phone call saying my very healthy husband had a seizure while working out and I needed to come to the emergency room immediately. Within 24 hours, I was told that my husband had a malignant brain tumor and had a life expectancy of 12 months. And in an instant, I was in charge of … everything. Yes, I knew how much our monthly expenses were and could handle paying the bills, but when you’re confronted with a serious illness, suddenly there’s a lot more than just bill payment on your plate. You need to learn how to navigate the healthcare system. You need to be able to make quick and confident medical decisions, understand insurance, and keep your financial house in order, all while you’re under tremendous emotional strain.

Immediate Medical Concerns

There were many things, even as a financial planner, that I had never considered. My husband and I had both worked full-time and our health insurance was provided by our respective employers.  I knew how my insurance coverage worked but I had never reviewed his plan, I had no idea if the hospital he had been taken to was in-network, or  if he was on a PPO plan or an HMO.  Would I be getting a huge bill from the hospital? How could I find out what kind of treatments would be covered by his insurance? How much was his out-of-pocket maximum, and could we cover that from our emergency funds?  I knew who his employer was, of course, but didn’t know who to call about sick leave arrangements. When he came home from the hospital, the first thing I did was pull his benefits brochure out of the filing cabinet and started reading. Over the course of the next two years while he was being treated, I learned every detail about his health care, but if I had known even the basics from the beginning, I could have reduced a great deal of my financial worries that only added to my stress during those first months.  

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Getting Ready To Take On The Challenges of Navigating the Healthcare System

My experience in being responsible for a loved one with serious medical situation, and learning how to navigate the healthcare system, can happen to anyone.  Whether you become the person making all the decisions suddenly at a young age like I was, or you’re older, most women will be handling their household’s  financial affairs alone at some point in their lives.  Here’s how to step up to the challenge. 

1. Write everything down.  When you’re juggling so many different decisions, it’s really difficult to remember who, what, when and where. I kept a red binder that had all my notes every step including name of the person I spoke to, the phone number, confirmation numbers, next steps and bills.  It was very handy to be able to refer to the details for follow ups.

2. Open and organize the mail at least every few days.  You’ll be receiving many bills, health insurance coverage summaries and correspondence from employer benefits administrators.  It is overwhelming to have a huge pile of envelopes to sort out so doing a little bit each day makes it more manageable and you can be sure you don’t miss anything important.

3. Keep copies of all the commonly requested documents. This includes health insurance cards, summaries of test results, insurance authorization forms and health care power of attorney documents in your organization binder. I carried my red binder with all my notes and documents with me everywhere.  It is amazing the number of times that a doctor’s office or hospital will say that if they don’t have this piece of paper or that form that is not in their files they can’t go ahead with the treatment or appointment.  If you have all the important documents with you, you can provide copies on the spot and keep making progress. This will help to navigate the murky waters of the healthcare system. 

Being financially informed and taking steps to be organized will take one less worry off your plate and can help give you the peace of mind that you will, in fact, be able to make good decisions so you can handle being in charge of … everything.  


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