Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

As health insurance costs rise, so does my personal financial concern November 1, 2017


EVERY YEAR ABOUT THIS TIME, my blood pressure temporarily spikes in response to my anger. Anger about ever-rising health insurance premiums depleting our family pocketbook faster than a pick pocket.

I’ve vented and raged and spewed my discontent here. My jaw drops. My mind thinks a few unprintable words. My stress rises. How can we continue to pay these astronomical premiums and still have money for basic needs like food, gas, utilities, clothes, etc?  I am thankful Randy and I paid off our mortgage decades ago, that our three kids are out of college and independent, that we’re OK driving aging (2003 and 2005) vehicles… We’ve always been, out of necessity, fiscally conservative, just as we were raised within poor rural families.

Let’s break it down. Health insurance premiums for my husband and me (I’m on his work plan) will go up $190 from $873/month to $1,000/month in 2018. That’s for each of us. Randy’s employer pays half his premium, $500. So we will shell out $1,500/month, or $18,000/annually. But before insurance kicks in, we must pay $3,600 each in deductibles. Alright then.

Let’s recrunch those numbers. In reality, our premiums are $1,300/month each if we need medical care and reach our deductibles. Times two, that’s $2,600/month or $31,200/year. Subtract the $6,000 Randy’s employer pays for his insurance and we’re down to $25,200. Still.

This year I met my $3,700 deductible. But I paid out $14,176 in premiums and deductible for around $4,000 (maybe a bit more; some bills haven’t processed yet) in medical expenses. I’m no math whiz. But even I can see that makes zero financial sense.

Holy, cow.

Somehow we’ve managed on a modest income, Randy’s as an automotive machinist and mine as a self-employed photographer and writer. But these latest insurance premium hikes are pushing us to a financial breaking point. I need to figure out an alternative to the $1,500 to be deducted from Randy’s paychecks each month for health insurance in 2018. Our incomes are not increasing to meet this through-the-roof expense.

My kneejerk brainstorming produced the following options and reactions:

  • Go without health insurance. Not a good idea given our ages and the financial risk.
  • Find jobs with better benefits. At age 61, that’s unlikely.
  • Take on second part-time jobs.
  • Use a Christian-based health cost sharing plan. A strong possibility that requires additional investigation.

Our eldest daughter suggested we move to Canada with its publicly-financed healthcare. I know little about that system. But in a recent conversation with a Canadian visiting her brother here in Minnesota, I heard all about the shortage of doctors and the months of waiting to see one. Even if you’re seriously ill. No, thank you. Besides, I won’t move that far from my granddaughter.

There you go. Now, on to the research, the discussions, the continuing frustration and anger and stress and number crunching that each autumn overtake me.

I’ve joked with Randy that soon he’ll pay his employer to work because nothing will remain of his paychecks. I wish that statement didn’t feel uncomfortably close to reality.


AS BAD AS THE RATE HIKES would be for us, I know it could be worse. I’ve seen rates from a major carrier for individual off-exchange health insurance in my county of Rice and seven other southern Minnesota counties. If I chose the bronze plan (least expensive) with a $6,650 deductible, my monthly premium would be $1,361. Take that premium and deductible times two (there would be no subsidy from Randy’s employer) and our health coverage would cost $45,964 before medical bills would be covered. Holy cow. Who can afford that? Not us.

I realize many of you, especially self-employed small business owners or employees of small businesses, are dealing with the same absurd health insurance premiums. I don’t have an answer. I just know that the escalating cost of health insurance is creating a personal financial crisis for many of us. Additionally, because of those costs and matching high deductibles, we can’t afford medical care. Now does that make sense?


TELL ME: Are you dealing with/facing similar skyrocketing health insurance premiums? I’d like to hear about your situation and what you are doing. Are you going without insurance? Selected another option? Found a job with better benefits? Whatever you have done, or haven’t, I’m listening.

Please note that I moderate all comments. So please keep the discussion on topic and civil.


© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


When you can no longer afford health insurance… October 26, 2016

I live on one of Faribault's busiest residential streets, also a main route for the ambulance which is based near my home.

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

ABOUT A YEAR AGO, I penned a post expressing my outrage at the ever-rising cost of health insurance.

I expected those costs to stabilize. I was wrong. So here I am, writing and agonizing again about insurance rates that are through the roof nearly unaffordable for my husband and me.

Beginning on January 1, our monthly premiums will total $1,746, of which we will pay $1,310. Add in $3,700 deductibles for each of us and you can see the financial ridiculousness of this plan. Before we can benefit from this health insurance offered through Randy’s employer, we will spend thousands and thousands of dollars. Like $14,176 for me and $8,944 for Randy since his employer pays half ($437/month) of his premium.

We are not wealthy. Nor are we poor. We are lower middle income. I am self-employed. Randy has worked the same job for more than 30 years. His benefits are minimal.

This year we both turned sixty, bumping us up on January 1, 2017, into a newer and higher premium bracket. Lucky us.

In 2016, our health insurance premiums were $723/month each for policies with a $3,500 per person deductible. In the new year, we will pay $225 more a month (nearly a 21 percent increase) with $3,700 deductibles.

This cannot continue. The cost of health insurance premiums threatens our financial stability. Paying $15,720 a year in premiums is crazy and unaffordable. We are careful with our money. Thankfully, years ago we paid off the mortgage on our modest home. We don’t take big vacations. We seldom dine out. We don’t own new vehicles. We limit our spending. But we have to eat and pay other basic cost of living bills.

Something has to give. I wish I had the answer. Of one thing I am certain. I am sick and tired of health insurance costs that have skyrocketed. It’s to the point where we can’t afford to get sick or to seek medical treatment. We can’t save money for retirement. The cost of health insurance and healthcare is my greatest financial worry.

I know many others are in the same predicament. The Minnesota legislature intends to call a special session addressing the crisis, specifically for those buying individual plans. Up until a year ago, I had an individual plan, too. What am I missing here? I was advised that we cannot apply for coverage through the state run marketplace, MNsure, (thus qualifying for a subsidy) because we have insurance available through an (my husband’s) employer.

TELL ME: How about you? Are you in the same situation as us? Do you have a solution to this crisis?

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


On the cost of health insurance: Sometimes all you can do is laugh February 15, 2015

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 11:42 AM
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I PROBABLY SHOULDN’T be penning this post because it’s likely to raise my blood pressure. And that’s not a good thing considering I want to avoid activity that would necessitate a doctor’s visit.

Don’t get me wrong. I am thankful for doctors and nurses and other medical professionals who possess the skills and talent to help heal people.

But I’m frustrated about the ever-rising cost of health insurance. Last year my family forked out $11,022 to cover three of us—two late fifty-somethings and a 20-year-old. Do your math. That’s just shy of $919/month.

Add on the $4,048 we paid out-of-pocket for medical expenses in 2014 and that’s a significant chunk of money going toward healthcare costs.

Info from my current health insurance documents.

Info from my current health insurance documents.

The monthly premium on my individual plan this year has dropped $30 to $412/month. Now you might think that a good thing. But, in order to keep my premium down, I switched insurance companies and now have a much higher deductible—$5,200 instead of $2,000.

When I was considering my options in November, after my then insurer informed me that my 2015 monthly rate would skyrocket from $441 to $777, I felt like I was gambling. I am. I’m gambling on not needing to visit a doctor, except for “free” preventative care, in 2015.

Sure we have “free” preventative care now, which is great. But at what cost? Is it really “free?”

And, yes, I checked into whether I qualify for financial assistance through MNsure, the state’s online health insurance marketplace. I don’t given I could get on my husband’s plan through his employer. Never mind that I would need to pay the full $777/month premium. So that option was out. That left me searching for an individual plan I could afford. (It doesn’t exist.)

Minnesota Public Radio nailed it in a February 10 headline, High deductibles keep patients away from care. (Click here to read that story.) Yes, as crazy as it sounds, many of us now carry deductibles so high that we think twice about going to the doctor. What good is health insurance then?

I consider my health insurance coverage a catastrophic plan. I need the coverage “just in case” something major happens.

These ever-rising costs need to be brought under control. The current system isn’t working for lower middle income families like mine and, I expect, most families except those fortunate enough to have full employer paid health insurance.

Employers are feeling the financial burden, too. I’d guess some small business owners have had to reduce benefits or even lay off employees.

One positive note with healthcare reform, though, is the elimination of the pre-existing condition clause that prevented me from switching insurers.

I appreciate the approach taken by Almost Iowa, a southern Minnesota blogger whose wife was recently laid off. This blogger writes humorous and sarcastic fiction. Brilliantly. He addresses the issue of health insurance premiums and deductibles in “I married the wrong girl!”  Just like the MPR story, he nailed it. (Click here to read.)

Every fiction writer knows that beneath the surface always lies some bit of truth.

“I married the wrong girl!” made me laugh out loud in an “I wish this wasn’t true” sort of way. But, as they say, laughter is the best medicine. And that doesn’t cost us anything.

FYI: Today marks the final day to open enroll through MNsure, in other words the last day you can purchase health insurance through this venue until the next open enroll later this year.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Why I chose the open market over MNSure January 2, 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 6:00 AM
Tags: , , , , , ,

ONE OF MY GREATEST STRESSORS in 2013 involved health insurance. After hours of research, many phone calls, an in-person meeting with MNSure assisters, ongoing issues with the state’s health insurance exchange website, many attempts to complete an application, and some muttered choice words, tears and extreme frustration, I finally have a new insurance plan with a lower deductible, better benefits and a lower premium than my old plan.

MNSure website edited screen shot

An edited screen shot of the mnsure.org home page.

But it’s through the open market, not Minnesota’s online health insurance exchange.

That’s despite qualifying for $18 in monthly assistance, or so I’ve been notified online and in a letter I received on December 31, 2013, from MNSure.

No, thank you. I do not want the $216 annual subsidy to help pay my health insurance premium. It is not worth the uncertainty and stress and dealing with a government program. If the assistance was higher, I likely would accept the monies. But then again, maybe not.

So for now I’ve opted to purchase health insurance off the exchange for $441/month.

I’ve experienced too much uncertainty and confusion through the entire MNSure process from unclear application questions to frustrated assisters to a MNSure rep who phoned to tell me I had to resubmit my app because, “due to technical errors, calculations were incorrect.” Initially I was told I didn’t qualify for any government aid.

How could I believe anything I was told or read or mailed? My trust and confidence in the process have been nearly non-existent.

Sunday morning, after church, my husband and I sat down at the dining room table and examined off-exchange policies from two companies. I needed to choose a new plan because I could no longer afford my grandfathered-in $3,000 deductible individual policy. The premium on that plan increased $108, to $562/month, on January 1, 2014, with no change in benefits, including no free preventative care.

To be honest, my insurer ticked me off with the $108/month premium increase, sending me a bill for $1,627 (which I paid) and then billing me for an additional $300 shortly thereafter to continue my coverage until April 1. I won’t get into details, but suffice to say I was not happy. The additional $300 payment issue was finally resolved to my satisfaction, but still left me angry that I even had to deal with this situation in the first place.

I am now with a new company, and therein lies the single most positive change for me through the Affordable Care Act. Prior to this, due to a pre-existing condition, I was stuck with my existing health plan. Now I cannot be denied coverage because of that existing health issue and I have “free” preventative care.

If only health insurance premiums would decrease, I’d be even more pleased. My family forks out $926/month for health insurance premiums for three of us. And, in my opinion, that isn’t exactly affordable.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Why NDSU research into growing human bones interests me June 28, 2013

File photo from June of the main entrance to North Dakota State University in Fargo.

File photo from June 2012 shows the main entrance to North Dakota State University in Fargo.

FOR THE MOST PART, I ignore the mass emails sent by whomever, including North Dakota State University, where my son attended his first year of college. He’s transferring to Tufts University in Medford, MA., outside of Boston, this fall.

But this head in a recent NDSU Alumni (I’m not an NDSU alumni) mailing caught my attention:

Researchers Coax Clays to Make Human Bone: Weak bones, broken bones, damaged bones, arthritic bones. Researchers at North Dakota State University, Fargo, are making strides in tissue engineering, designing scaffolds that may lead to ways to regenerate bone.

Arthritic bone.

Up until some seven years ago, I’d never considered arthritic bone, not even thought about arthritis or its debilitating impact on the body and spirit and on mobility.

But then, at age 48 ½, I developed back and hip pain which, initially diagnosed as a pinched sciatic nerve, was eventually correctly diagnosed as arthritis in my right hip. For 2 ½ years I lived with the constant pain until near immobility and an inability to tolerate the pain led me to undergo total right hip replacement five years ago. Given my age, 51, I wanted to put off the surgery as long as possible.

I likely will outlive my hip, which has a life expectancy of 15 – 20 years. That means hip surgery. Again. And that scares the heck out of me because I will be much older, the recovery more challenging.

When I read news about research like that being conducted at NDSU, I am encouraged—hopeful for a better alternative to the current implant system. There have been too many recalls on hip implants. Thus far, mine has not been among them. But pity those people who need to have their defective implants removed and replaced.

To the NDSU researchers who created the system of “3-D mesh scaffold composed of degradable materials compatible to human tissue” in which “cells generate bone and the scaffold deteriorates,” thank you for working on this project.

Do you think you could perfect the process and have it on the market in 10 years?

FYI: Learn more about this NDSU research project by clicking here.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


The art of healing at a Minnesota hospital January 28, 2013

TWO YEARS AGO this month, my then 92-year-old artist friend, Rhody Yule, opened his first-ever gallery exhibit at the Paradise Center for the Arts in Faribault.

Six months later, he died.

But Rhody, and his art, live on, this time in a Paradise Center Healing Arts Program Exhibit at District One Hospital in Faribault. The arts center and hospital are partnering on the program.

Thursday evening I attended a reception for that show which features 70 pieces of art created by eight outstanding artists, each of them definitively different: Faribault artists Jody Hanscom, Jorge Ponticas, Pearl Tait and Rhody Yule; Marcus Moller of Morristown; Faribault native Tom Fakler, now living in Basel, Switzerland; Jane Strauss of Minneapolis; and Cynthia Ali of St. Paul.

As Healing Arts Coordinator Elizabeth Jacobs led my husband and me through the maze of hallways and centers that comprise the hospital complex, I thought how Rhody would have felt honored to be part of an exhibit designed to comfort patients and make their hospital experiences more pleasant.

The art selected by a committee of hospital staff fits the program’s criteria as “healing art,” meaning it must be calming, happy and a positive piece of work, Jacobs says.

Three of Jody Hanscom's horse portraits.

Three of Jody Hanscom’s horse portraits.

And you’ll see that, almost experience that positivity, from the minute you walk in the front doors of the hospital to view Jody Hanscom’s sizable horse portraits in the lobby waiting areas. Jody’s oil paintings capture both the gentleness and free spirit of horses, a combination that simultaneously calms and uplifts.

Tucked into a corner by the elevators, the fourth of Hanscom's horse oil paintings.

Tucked into a corner by the elevators, the fourth of Hanscom’s horses.

Just down the hallway, five oil paintings by Jorge Ponticas brighten the walls with vivid scenes from his native Chile and elsewhere. His art evokes happy thoughts. What can I say? I can’t resist the sweet face of a llama.

Pearl Tait's "Aubergine Drift I."

Pearl Tait’s “Aubergine Drift I.”

Moving along to the emergency room lobby, I find Pearl Tait’s moody mixed medium art the ideal choice for a setting often filled with emotion and uncertainty. Her work, which features textures like sand and tape incorporated into a painting, reflects, in my opinion, the intense layers of feelings that come with any visit to the ER.

A photo in a cozy private waiting room fronts Tom Fakler's Swiss Alps photos.

A sofa in a cozy private waiting room fronts Tom Fakler’s trio of Swiss Alps photos.

Around the corner inside a cozy ER room where families are taken to hear bad news (so says Jacobs), the mood totally changes with the soothing photography of Tom Fakler. His black-and-white canvas prints of the Swiss Alps offer a natural world escape during a particularly difficult time for patients’ families.

Likewise, the photography of Jane Strauss in the surgery center reflects that same sort of escapism, especially in panoramic landscape scenes. Jacobs notes that Strauss is autistic, meaning her approach to photography focuses on qualities like texture and detail, aspects others might not consider in photographing a scene.

Faribault native Cynthia Ali's floral pastels are not for sale. Ali, of St. Paul, is primarily a jewelry artist.

Faribault native Cynthia Ali’s floral pastels are not for sale. Ali, of St. Paul, is primarily a jewelry artist.

Also in the surgery center, Cynthia Ali infuses a soft natural beauty with her floral pastels. You can almost smell the heady perfume of her beautiful roses.

Marcus Moller's "Madison Lake Bait Shop" in watercolor.

Marcus Moller’s “Madison Lake Bait Shop” in watercolor. Moller’s art (mostly pastels) hangs in the surgery center waiting area, a place frequented by children. Thus his art is hung quite high, which made photographing it difficult.

Marcus Moller works in pastels, too, and watercolors, covering a variety of subjects from autumn landscapes to a bold rooster to my favorite, “Madison Lake Bait Shop.” Those of you who’ve traveled Minnesota Highway 60 will recognize the kitschy red building backed by the Madison Lake water tower. I cannot even begin to count how many times I’ve considered photographing that building. Moller’s bait shop painting is nudging me to actually stop and take that photo.

Twenty-five of Rhody Yule's oils grace the hall and patient rooms in the cancer center.

Twenty-five of Rhody Yule’s oils grace the hall and patient rooms in the cancer center.

Finally, my open house tour ended in a hallway outside the District One Cancer Center with the oil paintings of my friend, Rhody Yule. I’d seen nearly every one of Rhody’s hundreds of paintings when I worked with his family and friends on the 2011 Paradise exhibit. But, still, it was as if I was viewing his pieces for the first time, appreciating the landscapes, many of them winter scenes in this show, and the other art he created through decades of painting. Rhody was a kind, gentle man with a heart full of goodness, and I remembered that, too.

Examples of Rhody Yules art close-up.

Examples of Rhody Yule’s art close-up.

Most of the artwork in the Healing Arts Exhibit, but not all, is available for sale. (Artwork not featured in photos here is because I did not have permission to photograph it.)  A portion of any proceeds from the sale of Yule’s work will go to the local hospice, per the family’s request.

If you wish to tour the winter installment of the Healing Arts Exhibit, check in at the main desk, 200 State Avenue, during hospital business hours. All areas of the exhibit may not be accessible for viewing at all times. The current show runs through February 28.

If you are an artist interested in being featured in a Healing Arts Exhibit, contact Jacobs at the Paradise Center for the Arts. You will find details and contact information by clicking here.

The Healing Arts program is sponsored by the District One Hospital Auxiliary, which initially proposed the concept.

To view information on the artists with an online presence, click on their highlighted names.

WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS on art as a “healing” tool? Have you seen similar exhibits? Please share.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


I’d rather not be in Vegas April 6, 2011

I've lost 70 percent of the hearing in my right ear due to a sudden sensory hearing loss.


I’ve walked through a Minnesota casino twice and failed to pull a single lever on a slot machine or drop a single coin.

I prefer to play it safe, to not risk losing for the slim possibility of winning. It is the reason I don’t buy lottery tickets. I feel like I’m throwing away my money.

That is partially why a decision I am currently facing is so incredibly difficult.

Do I have surgery or not?

Will I be among the 25 in 100 who benefit from a sac round window graft? Even the name of the surgery is daunting. I don’t know enough right now about the outpatient ear surgery to decide.

But I have the statistics. For only one in four patients, the surgery successfully restores some hearing. But the percentage of hearing regained is perhaps only 20 percent. The slim possibility exists—about two percent—that the surgery could cause me to lose all of my hearing in my right ear. That really doesn’t matter given I’m basically deaf in my right ear anyway due to a sudden sensory hearing loss that occurred a month ago.

I currently have only 30 percent hearing in that ear. I hear only “noise,” nothing as distinguishable as a word. I also suffer from tinnitus, ringing in my right ear.

On Tuesday when I met with a renowned ear specialist in Minneapolis, I was presented with the surgery option. I was not expecting this, was not prepared with a list of questions. My immediate thought was this: “I don’t want to have more surgery.”

Already in my life, I’ve had seven surgeries, the first at age four to correct my vision. Since then, I’ve had oral surgery to remove my wisdom teeth, three Caesarean sections, inguinal hernia surgery and my last, total right hip joint replacement, not quite three years ago.

I am not anxious to rush into another surgery.

But time is of the essence. Apparently the sooner the surgery is done after the hearing loss, the better. I don’t understand why and I didn’t think to ask.

My doctor offered no recommendation on the surgery. I asked. He says he doesn’t recommend, only presents the options and information and allows the patient to decide.

I am at the point now of researching, pondering, praying, considering a second opinion, losing sleep over this decision.

What should I do?

Should I risk throwing away $3,000—my health insurance deductible? Should I risk not having the surgery if it could restore even a small percentage of my hearing? (A hearing aid will not help with the type of hearing loss I have.) Should I risk the risks that are always there whenever you have surgery?

I’m not a gambler. But right now I feel like I’m in Vegas.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling