Employer responds after woman loses medical benefits during cancer battle

Employer comments on woman losing health benefits during cancer battle

BERNIE, MO (KFVS) - A Bernie, Missouri woman battling cancer says things have gone from bad to worse after losing her medical benefits.

Nancy Abernathy was diagnosed with cancer last September.

Since then she's undergone surgeries and chemotherapy treatments, which have kept her from returning to work at First Midwest Bank in Dexter.

Nancy has been on unpaid medical leave, but recently she says she got a call saying she no longer had medical benefits through her employer of more than 20 years.

Nancy tells Heartland News it was a huge surprise.

Nancy Abernathy's cancer fight and subsequent health insurance nightmare struck a chord with many of you on Facebook.

On Thursday night, her employer responded to our earlier request for comment.

According to a press release sent to us via a St. Louis communications firm, First Midwest Bank of Dexter says Nancy Abernathy is on long-term unpaid leave.

The representative we spoke with said should Nancy be able to return to work a job will be waiting for her, though it's not guaranteed to be the job she previously held.

The release goes on to say the health insurance company limits ongoing health coverage for employees on long-term leave, which is why they say Nancy lost her medical benefits.

The federal COBRA rule allows employees to maintain health insurance by paying the premium themselves, but the premium for COBRA is much more expensive.

As a result, Nancy and her family have dipped into her retirement fund and are in the process of selling their home.

According to Nancy and her husband Keith, they were told many times that Nancy would not lose her job due to her cancer treatments.

But the family was told she'd missed too many work days for the year to qualify for benefits.

The Family and Medical Leave Act allows employees to miss 12 weeks of unpaid time and keep their benefits.

Now that she's lost those, it's set a course for financial ruin for the family.

They're now paying more than eight times their normal monthly insurance premium and have to sell the home they've lived in 20 years to avoid further debt.

"I have one life insurance policy that was in effect and I don't know if it still is now or not," said Nancy Abernathy. "But I was telling Keith that if I died this year, we'd still have it. And that's a horrible thing to think about, but if I die next year we won't have anything."

"I mean it's not only taken her insurance but it's taken self respect and trust and I just don't understand," said Nancy's husband, Keith. "I hope none of these people in this company who makes these decisions have to go through this, but I wonder if they did would their minds be changed."

Nancy's husband works part-time and can't add Nancy to his policy.

The family says they don't know if losing Nancy's benefits is even legal, but they think it's morally wrong.

According to the United States Department of Labor website, the Family and Medical Leave Act can be extended to include those suffering from chronic or serious health conditions past the 12 week mark.

Unfortunately, this is a scenario that plays out all too often across the U.S.

A 2014 Harvard study found medical expenses are the number one cause of bankruptcy.

What's more startling is around 78 percent of those filers had some form of health insurance.

So what happens if you are diagnosed with a serious medial condition and must take off time from work?

Well that depends.

Heartland News spoke with a Cape Girardeau attorney who has a history with these types of cases.

There are several laws in place to protect employees from discrimination due to illness or disability.

But if your disease means you can't do your job even if they adjust for your condition, eventually your time off will run out and so will your employee benefits.

That's often the beginning of financial stress for families.

Because the COBRA premiums are much higher and now you're without the income to help pay it.

You can always apply for social security disability, but that's a long process that can take months and even years.

The attorney we spoke with said it's really a grey area and there's not a concrete answer.

However, it is important to stay informed and be in contact with your employer, healthcare provider and doctor to know your rights and the best course of action.

If you would like to donate money for Nancy's medical costs, a GoFundMe page has been set up for her here.

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