Doris Portillo keeps the door to her father’s old room closed to avoid remembering the last few months of his life. It’s a small room, barely large enough for a bed, a small bureau, and a television, all of which are long gone. This is where she, her siblings, and her nephew cared for her father, Aquilino Portillo—feeding him, lifting him out of bed to take him to the bathroom, doing their best to clean the sores that festered beneath his weight.
A naturalized citizen from El Salvador, Portillo brought her parents to the United States in 2001 and sponsored their green cards so that she could take care of them as they aged. In late 2013, when Aquilino was diagnosed with end-stage metastatic prostate cancer, she discovered how difficult taking care of him would be.
Portillo’s insurance through her employer—she works nights cleaning offices for the City of Houston—didn’t cover her father, and the family couldn’t afford to buy insurance for him. They tried to determine if he could qualify for Medicare, the federal health benefit for the aging, or Medicaid, the state-run health insurance for the poor, but were given conflicting responses depending on whom they talked to. Confused by the requirements and limited by her poor English, Portillo applied for Medicaid for her father, but never got a response. So, for the better part of a year, the Portillos carted Aquilino back and forth to the emergency room in a wheelchair, where they would wait for hours, sometimes all night, simply to have his pain medications refilled.
As Aquilino’s condition worsened, he could no longer be moved from his bed to see a doctor. His body was riddled with tumors. His legs became too heavy for him to move, and his pain became unbearable. “It was ugly, ugly and scary, to see a loved one dying,” Portillo says in Spanish. “And if that person is your father, it’s something indescribable.”
By the time Portillo found out about a small county program that sends health workers to the homes of low-income, bedridden patients, her father had been at home without pain medication for two and a half months. The nurse practitioner who came, spurred by Aquilino’s obvious suffering, rushed to order medication to make him more comfortable. Two days later, when the morphine had barely had a chance to soothe him, he was gone.
“Sometimes people die and death is sweeter,” Portillo says. “I don’t think death is ever sweet, but they suffer less. My father suffered so much, he really fought to leave us.”
Portillo is not alone. Some 28 million people in the United States do not have health insurance, and for the dying and their families, lack of insurance is devastating. Though the care needs that arise with terminal illness are simple, they are often prohibitively difficult to meet without insurance. The uninsured and their families are left to navigate public and charity end-of-life care options that vary widely across the country, if they are available at all. There are no data on how or where the uninsured access this care, and the scope of unmet need is virtually unknown. What is known is that, at the end of their lives, many uninsured people quite literally cannot afford to die with dignity.