BUSINESS
11/23/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Underinsured But Cancer-Free Thanks In Part To Charity Help

After a breast cancer diagnosis, Virginia Pivik of Denver underwent a mastectomy in October 2007 and began chemotherapy and a year-long Herceptin regimen. The following July, she lost her job when the radio station where she worked as a producer and on-air talent folded.

Pivik, 32, said she was able to continue her health insurance for about $400 a month via a state program for former employees of bankrupt companies (she was ineligible for COBRA because her radio station only employed three people), but it didn't cover the total cost of the Herceptin, which Pivik's doctors said would increase her likelihood of survival to 98 percent.

"My doctors thought it was critical for me to have Herceptin," Pivik told the Huffington Post. "At that financial point, I could not have completed the treatment."

So Pivik got in touch with the HealthWell Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in 2003 to help pay the bills for the nation's 25 million underinsured. In 2008, HealthWell awarded over $105 million in grants to over 37,000 people. Pivik met the criteria: She had insurance that covered the first portion of her treatment, her income was within 400 percent of the poverty line, and breast cancer treatment is one of the 26 treatments for which HealthWell provides assistance.

Pivik said HealthWell provided $5,000 toward the Herceptin treatment, which she completed in November. She celebrated the New Year cancer-free and has returned to climbing 14,000-foot mountains in Colorado.

"You have no idea how grateful I am," she said.

HealthWell flew Pivik to Washington, D.C. where she joined a panel of health care reform experts to share her story at the National Press Club on Tuesday. Panelist Lowell Schnipper, chief of hematology/oncology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, called drugs like Herceptin an "absolutely essential" treatment for certain cancer patients and lamented that so many are forced to choose between paying for treatment and basic living expenses.

With unemployment nearing 10 percent, demand for help from HealthWell has shot up 40 percent over last year. In May, 4,092 people applied for assistance and HealthWell doled out over $11 million. In June, it was 4,353, and in July it reached 4,826. Each month, HealthWell increased its aid by a million dollars, spending $13 million in July.

Board member David Knowlton told the Huffington Post that the increase in demand is entirely due to increasing financial distress associated with rising unemployment. "It's the economics," he said.

Pivik is currently teaching communications at a college in Denver and doing part-time freelance work. She's covered on her husband's health insurance plan, but in June he lost his job at an IT company where he'd worked for five years. He was able to continue his health insurance at the reduced COBRA rate provided by the stimulus bill -- but that doesn't last forever.

"I am now relying on my husband's COBRA insurance," Pivik said, "but if he doesn't find a job, what am I going to do?"

Nobody at the Press Club had an answer for that one.