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Erie County cancer program helped save life of uninsured Tonawanda woman

Mary "M.L." Hodge is thankful for Erie County program.

Mary "M.L." Hodge is thankful for Erie County program.

Mary “M.L.” Hodge had some tough decisions to make after her husband died unexpectedly seven years ago. One of them almost cost Hodge her own life.

Michael Hodge, a heating and air conditioning specialist at Erie County Medical Center, was the primary breadwinner in the household.

“After he died, that’s when I lost my health insurance,” said Mary Hodge, 60, a crossing guard with the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda school district. “It was either roof over my head or health insurance, so I went with roof over my head.”

It was a choice that could have turned catastrophic when Hodge was diagnosed last year with breast cancer, if not for the Erie County Cancer Services Program. The program is part of a statewide initiative that provides free breast, cervical, and colon cancer screenings and education to eligible, uninsured and underinsured men and women.

Hodge found out about it the hard way.

For years, she looked to take good care of herself, walking almost daily, eating right, rebuilding her life with help from family and friends. Regular doctor visits and preventative care weren’t in her budget, however.

She decided to see a primary care doctor in the summer of 2015, paying out of pocket. The physician wrote her a prescription for a mammogram because Hodge hadn’t had one since her husband had died six years earlier, after problems with a blood transfusion during surgery. She filed away the prescription because she couldn’t afford the test.

“Then one day, I saw a dimple on my breast and knew that wasn’t normal,” Hodge said. She went to Windsong Radiology Group and paid for her mammogram in cash. The procedure and a subsequent biopsy determined she had four tumors and HER2 breast cancer, a form that tends to be harder to treat and more prone to spread.

“I was frantic,” Hodge said. “I thought, ‘What am I going to do? How am I going to take care of myself? Who’s going to help me?’”

Windsong staff referred Hodge to the Cancer Services Program. Program case manager Patricia Beecher signed Hodge up for the program, which covered the cost of her testing. Beecher also helped Hodge sign up for a cancer-related Medicaid program, which covered most of the costs of her chemotherapy, double-mastectomy, radiation and follow-up care.

“It’s been a struggle, but they made it OK,” Hodge said. “Pat is just amazing. I don’t know what I would have done without her and the program. I’m surprised it’s not more talked about.”

The Erie County program once served about 1,500 people but the number has fallen by about half as more and more people buy insurance under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), often called Obamacare, said Michelle Wysocki, director of the Erie County Cancer Services Program.

Under the ACA, everyone with health insurance – including those on Medicare or with high-deductible plans – receives free preventative testing, with no copays, for a variety of conditions that include breast and colon cancer testing. New York State also recently enacted a law that covers diagnostic biopsies if a mammogram suggests breast cancer, Wysocki said.

Many who use the program today have had insurance lapse because of a job loss, breakup or a death in the family, she said.

Uninsured women aged 40 to 64, as well as those with a family history of breast cancer or with potential symptoms, are eligible for the Cancer Services Program, Wysocki said. The same holds true when it comes to colon cancer testing for men and women 50 or older or with a family history or potential symptoms. Those in Erie County with questions can go online to www2.erie.gov/cancerservices, or call 858-7376; those in other counties can dial 866-442-2262 for information.

“It’s been a long year,” said Hodge, who was diagnosed with breast cancer last September and returned to work at the start of the new school year. “Some people look down on me when they see the Medicaid card, which I’m not used to – because I’ve worked since I was 16, paid my own way – but when I got it I was OK with it, because I needed it.

“It’s wonderful to know there are things out there to help people that are in my situation.”

email: refresh@buffnews.com

Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon

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