Letters 12-05-2016

Trump going back on promises I’m beginning to suspect that we’ve been conned by our new president. He’s backpedaling on nearly every campaign promise he made to us...

This Christmas, think before you speak Now that Trump has won the election, a lot of folks who call themselves Christians seem to believe they have a mandate to force their beliefs on the rest of us. Think about doing this before you start yelling about people saying “happy holidays,” whining about Starbucks coffee cup image(s), complaining about other’s lifestyles…

First Amendment protects prayer (Re: Atheist Gary Singer’s contribution to the Crossed column titled “What will it take to make America great again?” in the Nov. 21 edition of Northern Express.) Mr. Singer, the First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”

Evidence of global warming Two basic facts underlay climate science: first, carbon dioxide was known to be a heat-trapping gas as early as 1850; and second, humans are significantly increasing the amount of CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels and other activities. We are in fact well on our way to doubling the CO2 concentrations in our atmosphere...

Other community backpack programs I just read your article in the Nov. 28 issue titled “Beneficial backpacks: Two local programs help children.” It is a good article, but there are at least two other such programs in the Traverse City area that I am aware of...

A ‘fox’ in the schoolhouse Trump’s proposed secretary of education, Betsy DeVos (“the fox” in Dutch), is a right-wing billionaire; relentless promoter of unlimited, unregulated charter schools and vouchers; and enemy of public schooling...

Home · Articles · News · Features · Russ Baron
. . . .

Russ Baron

Robert Downes - July 12th, 2010
A Matter of Life & Death: For Russ Barron, health care reform can’t come soon enough
By Robert Downes
Russ Barron has literally died five times during the course of his
life, with his heart coming to a complete stop, -- a terrifying
experience that includes the realization that he may have only minutes
to live.
Once, his heart quit beating at a traffic light in Traverse City.
“I was sitting at a light on South Airport Road and knew that
something bad was going to happen,” he recalls. “I felt the blood
rushing from my head and knew that I was going to die right there at
my steering wheel.”
In desperation, Russ opened his car door and threw himself into
traffic, hoping that someone would stop and help him. “I threw myself
out in the street and my heart started up again,” he says. “I went to
work the next day, but I didn’t look so good.”
Barron, 52, has lived on the edge of mortality his entire life. He’s
had seven strokes, three open heart surgeries, two heart valve
replacements and 15 pacemaker surgeries. He’s been a patient at
Munson Medical Center five times this year alone for complications
related to his pacemaker, as well as a minor stroke.
Perhaps an ordinary person would crumble under the terrifying pressure
of living in Barron’s shoes, and yet Russ has dozens of friends
(including this writer) who find him to be amazingly optimistic,
fun-loving and thoughtful.
Not to mention courageous. Beyond the unpredictability of his heart,
there’s only one thing he fears: that a fractured set of rules will
condemn him to death at the hands of the State and Federal health care
Currently on full disability, Barron is faced with the prospect of
surviving 18 months without any health care coverage between the time
he loses his state Medicaid benefits and the time he qualifies for
Medicare under Social Security. Because of his pre-existing heart
condition, it’s impossible for him to obtain health insurance and he’s
already spent everything he owns on his health bills -- at least $1
million, including a lifetime of savings and the sale of his home --

Barron provides a face for the millions of uninsured but hard-working
and responsible Americans who need health care reform. Despite decades
of heart problems and complications, Barron has had successful
careers in several fields and has been a productive member of society
his entire life.
“It’s difficult going from wearing a shirt and tie and being a
successful professional for 30 years to all of a sudden wondering how
you’re going to get out of bed this week,” he says.
His problems began the day of his birth when he was literally born blue.
“I have a really rare heart condition called Epstein’s Anomaly,”
Barron says. “There may be only 30 of us or so in the eastern United
States who have this disease.”
Growing up in Linden, outside Flint, Barron spent most of his
childhood feeling faint, with a blue tint to his lips and skin and
unable to play school sports. “Epstein’s Anomaly is real simple,” he
says. “The right side of my heart is upside down and the valves
inside are also upside down, including my heart’s electrical system.
It’s kind of like having your house wired by someone who doesn’t know
anything about electricity and nothing works.”
When he was 11, a doctor noticed a heart murmur which led to the
discovery that a valve in Barron’s heart wasn’t closing properly. “I
lived with it,” he says, but he wasn’t expected to live long: doctors
gave him until the age of 14.
The Barron family moved to Lake Havasu City in Arizona when he was in
his teens, where he had the first of nine pacemakers installed in his
chest in 1980. Today, his chest also packs an automatic
defibrillator which gives his heart a burst of electricity, if and
when it quits beating.
At the age of 24, Barron became the first successful patient in the
world to have what is called a Starr-Edwards valve installed in his
heart at a hospital in Portland, Oregon. This ‘ball & cage’
artificial valve has the distinction of being the oldest
continuously-operating heart valve of its kind in the world. “You can
hear a lot of clippety-clop in my chest,” Barron says.

Despite his health problems, Barron created a successful career.
Following in his father’s footsteps, he became a contractor, building
hundreds of homes in the Lake Havasu area. “By the time I was 30, I
was making over $50,000 a year, which was rare back in the ‘80s,” he
says, adding that for a number of years, his earnings ranged into the
six figures.
His health problems led to an interest in medicine and he went on to
become a respiratory therapist in the Pacific Northwest. Eventually,
he settled back in Michigan, becoming a marketing and operations
manager for DME, a chain of local pharmacies. He also managed a sleep
lab in Traverse City before being laid off -- a situation which
ultimately ended his health insurance benefits, since the COBRA
extension of such runs only 18 months.
Through the years, Barron saw his savings whittled away by co-pays,
hospital stays, home nursing care and shortfalls in what his Blue
Cross-Blue Shield insurance would pay.
“Not all doctors accept Blue Cross-Blue Shield,” he says, making the
point that even persons with health insurance can pile up bills.
“They want the full cost of a surgery or a procedure, so you have to
pay the difference on what the doctor receives from Blue Cross. If
the insurer reimburses $11,000, but the doctor wants $16,000, you have
to pay the remaining $5,000.”
In 2003, Barron spent 21 days in the hospital recovering from the
complications of a difficult surgery. “When I got out I couldn’t work
for four months and there were all of the co-pays and medical bills to
worry about,” he says.
Then there are the pharmacy bills: Barron takes 12 pills each
morning, 6 pills each night, and wears a pain patch continually. It
adds up.
Currently, more than 60% of all personal bankruptcies in America
spring from medical causes, often even among persons who have health
insurance, according to a study in the American Medical Journal.
Barron can confirm that hardship;. Today, he lives with his fiancé
Alice Hauser at her home in Suttons Bay. They’ve had to delay getting
married because of the risk that health care costs might mean to her
own property. “I ended up having to spend all of my savings -- my
IRAs and my 401k -- everything I had just to have my surgeries and
stay alive.”

For years he struggled to avoid going on disability, despite the
urging of his physician.
“I want to be a productive member of society, but my society is
smaller now -- it’s my friends and clubs,” he says, adding that he was
fortunate to receive state disability benefits and Medicaid within a
month of applying.
Despite the help and consideration of many doctors, pharmacists and
state health employees to whom Barron is grateful, in some ways the
health care system is rigged against him -- even to the point of
threatening his life.
Take COBRA benefits from his former employer, for instance. Under the
law, Barron could pay for his COBRA insurance premiums out of his own
pocket, but only for a period of up to 18 months.
“I don’t know why the health care system won’t let you just carry on
your COBRA benefits, but they force you to drop your insurance,” he
That means that even if Barron could afford private insurance at a
new, much higher rate, he’d be denied coverage because of his
pre-existing condition.
Then there is the impending shortfall in his state and federal coverage:
Barron has been told by the State that he’ll lose his Medicaid if he
goes on Social Security because he’ll be making too much money to
qualify for Michigan’s health program for persons on low incomes. But
under federal rules, he’ll have to wait two years (or 18 months beyond
the fall-off of his Medicaid) to receive Medicare while he’s on Social
It’s a potentially fatal Catch 22.
“Under the federal system, they say they’ll pay you Social Security,
but you must wait two years to get on Medicare. Why? Whoever made up
that rule really wasn’t thinking because by that point, you’ve got all
of these health conditions. Why do I have to wait two years? What is
the logic behind that? Are they waiting for you to die?
“Now what do I do? I’ve sold all of my assets and I’m down to the bare bones.”

Barron’s health problems are rubbed raw by the anxiety he feels over
his impending lack of medical coverage.
“This last month was the first time I haven’t had health coverage in
over 30 years and it was quite a shock,” he says, referring to the
fall-off of his COBRA benefits. “It was really a depressing day. I
woke up and thought that I don’t have insurance, and that’s a scary
Like many Americans who’ve lost their benefits, he began hoarding
pills and cutting dosages. The confirmation of his Medicaid benefits
was a godsend, but he wonders how he’ll bridge the 18-month gap to
The bitter irony is that unlike the Tea Party stereotypes condemning
‘moochers’ trying to receive ‘free’ health care reform for nothing,
Barron has contributed heavily to Social Security and Medicare all his
life and simply wants a chance to live on what he’s put in the system.
“I have no quarrels that you should spend all you own before getting
charity or help from the state,” Barron says. But he also feels that
he should be able to receive what is his due as a contributing member
of society.
“Now, knowing that I’m a man who’s worked all of my life and has done
well and has had to sell everything I own, including all of my
retirement money just to get to this point in disability, all I want
is to try to live a normal life on my own Social Security.”

“A lot of people in the community have offered to help me out,” he
says. “Loads of people and friends. I have a wonderful support system
in the community and at Munson and from the pharmacy programs at
Target and Walmart. At the end of the day, I’m blessed, but I’d like
to see a change in our country for the right reasons and see all
Americans have health care coverage. We’re supposed to be the greatest
nation in the world, yet we can’t provide our people with health
And while there have been angels in his life, there have also been
thoughtless individuals. Barron has been dismayed by persons who’ve
badmouthed the efforts to reform the nation’s health care system
without realizing that they’re condemning him to death.
If they only knew.
“Anyone can have a stroke tomorrow and within two to four years go
through everything they own and be where I am now with no insurance,”
he says.
“A lot of people are against health care reform, but they’re just in
their own world and don’t understand that they could be in my world in
a moment’s notice.”

Write your congressman and U.S. senator if you’d like to help Russ
Barron get an exception for his Medicare benefits.

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