Courting Disaster: After Liver Transplant, Anxiety About Health Care Costs Without Obamacare

Press play to hear Sheila Tyson tell her story.

A sudden illness nearly killed Sheila Tyson two years ago, throwing her life into disarray. She lost her job and burned through every penny she had -- and then some. Affordable health insurance is keeping her alive and afloat today, but that could soon change just as suddenly.

Tyson, 59, needed a liver transplant in 2013 after the Hepatitis C she’d had for years rapidly worsened. Luckily, her doctors found a donor within three weeks and the surgery went well, but her recovery was complicated when her Hepatitis returned. A new drug called Sovaldi, which costs more than $80,000, cured her, but Tyson couldn’t go back to work and her employer cut her off.

With that job went the health benefits, forcing Tyson to pay $600 a month for COBRA coverage, plus another $200 for medications, at a time when she wasn’t bringing home a paycheck.

“I was faced with no insurance, faced with no income and I want to live,” Tyson said. “I was about to lose everything -- my house, my car, my dignity. I mean, my life.”

When enrollment under the Affordable Care Act started in the fall of 2013, Tyson, who lives in Birmingham, Alabama, signed up for a subsidized plan that cost $19 a month. Alabama relies on a federally run health insurance exchange, which makes Tyson vulnerable to losing her coverage if the Supreme Court rules against the law later this year after hearing oral arguments Wednesday.

Tyson still hasn’t been able to find work, despite a full recovery. Without a job, she tries to get by on $900 a month in disability benefits and $90 in food assistance. Subsidized health insurance has helped her maintain her health and manage her expenses, but her situation is precarious.

“I have nothing left. I’m struggling today,” Tyson said.

Without the subsidies, Tyson simply wouldn’t be able to afford the insurance. “No way. If I did keep it, I would be choosing between having a roof over my head and my life,” she said. “Where would I cut corners? It would be food -- I would be trying to go to food banks.”

So after narrowly avoiding a medical and financial disaster two years ago, Tyson could end up facing a life-or-death threat again: unable to afford doctor visits or drugs she needs to keep taking to prevent her body from rejecting her new liver.

“It would be a waste of me even getting a transplant, basically,” she said.

For more personal stories about the real-life effects of the Supreme Court case, go to Courting Disaster: Obamacare Is Back At The Supreme Court, And These Six Lives Hang In The Balance.

The audio interviews in this feature were produced and edited by Ibrahim Balkhy and Brad Shannon.