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Fear Over Losing Health Care Coverage Causing Spike in Anxiety Cases

As Congress deliberates the future of the Affordable Care Act, the issue is causing anxiety for some here in Maine — literally. Some therapists say they’re seeing a spike in patients with significant fears about losing health care coverage.

It was the middle of the night on Election Day when Ruth Dean woke up to check the results. They weren’t what she expected.

“When I saw that it was Trump, I burst into tears. And I started to say things like, ‘Oh no. Oh no. What’s going to happen to our health care?’” she says.

Before the Affordable Care Act, Dean spent the better part of seven years without insurance. She and her husband run a guitar-making business in South Portland. Whenever she shopped for insurance plans, she says they were unaffordable.

“The cheapest plan I could get for a family of five was $1,500 a month with a $15,000 deductible. It was more than our mortgage, more than sending our kid to college, more than our groceries,” Dean says.

But with an ACA Marketplace plan, she now pays around $120 a month to cover most of the family — her two younger children are on MaineCare. Insurance coverage brought peace of mind for Dean, but she says that’s evaporated as President Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans plan to dismantle the law.

She says she worries constantly.

“Every day. Every day in the news, we just don’t know what Trump is going to do. We don’t know if we’re going to be without health care tomorrow,” Dean says.

She hasn’t sought professional help to address her fear, but others have.

“Over the past 10 years or so, I have seen this slow increase in anxiety related to health care. Access to it, and ability to afford it,” says Amy Davenport, a licensed professional counselor in Bangor. “I must say that this year, I’ve seen a spike in anxiety related to health care and ability to pay.”

Davenport says out of her caseload of about 40 people, around 65 percent have anxiety about losing health coverage. Another Bangor counselor, Dr. Christopher Garrison, has noticed a similar spike in about half of his patients.

“They started to come forward with the anxiety, I would say, right after the election occurred,” he says.

Garrison says the fear is spread from patients with ACA Marketplace plans to those with employer-based plans that have rising premiums, and to patients covered by federal programs.

“And they’re very concerned that even Medicare, or Medicaid — that those programs will be cut,” he says.

Dr. Jeff Matranga, a psychologist in Waterville, says anxiety about access to health care has been around for awhile.

“In my observations, in the last couple of years with the Affordable Care Act, that’s gotten better. And now, with the prospect of it being taken away and what will it be replaced with, I do hear some comments about that,” he says.

Matranga, who has been in practice for 30 years, says patients express fears about Trump that go beyond health care, from scientists concerned that valid data will become politicized or obscured to people dismayed that voters overlooked Trump’s faults and sent him to the White House.

“I’ve never seen this kind of reaction to a presidential election,” he says.

It’s a reaction that appears to bear out nationally. The American Psychological Association conducts an annual “Stress in America” survey. Over the past decade, says the association’s Dr. Lynn Bufka, stress has declined. But in its most recent survey in January, she says there was a statistically significant increase in stress.

Two-thirds of Americans, both Democrats and Republicans, reported stress about the future of the nation.

“And that was the first time we had a statistically significant increase,” Bufka says.

She says the source of anxiety typically is uncertainty. To cope, she says it’s important to think through options and prepare. And Davenport says therapists may need to follow their own advice.

“As private practitioners, we’re self-employed. So, as providers, as anybody who’s self-employed, we’re worried about access to health care and cost, and what that’s going to mean for our clients and ourselves, so it’s almost double the stress on our shoulders,” she says.

Uncertainty is likely to build as Congressional lawmakers face growing pressure to reach consensus on the fate of the Affordable Care Act and the next generation of health care policy in the Trump era.