Which is deadlier? Mystery illness or health insurance company?

What would happen if you developed a mystery illness, and what would happen if your insurance carrier found a way to weasel out of paying for it?

Hopefully you'll never find out. But if want to know what it's like, you can ask Lori Hall Steele.

I heard about her story earlier today, and I read about her in this recent article in her hometown paper, and all I could think was that Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain should be all over this, the next time any of them get into a health care debate or discussion. If there was ever an argument for universal health insurance, it seems like this would be it -- well, among thousands of other sad tales out there, obviously.

Ms. Steele is a freelance writer in Traverse City, Michigan, and has written thousands of articles about everything from weddings to war and coyotes to chocolate truffles. She has penned stories for the Associated Press, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post and numerous magazines from Brides to Kansas City Parent. And when she was a young reporter, she won a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award citation for a newspaper series that chronicled the lives of impoverished single mothers in rural northern Michigan.

Coming full circle, she, too, is now an impoverished single mother, thanks to the help, or non-help, of her health insurance carrier.Last summer, Steele, who has a 6-year-old son, noticed that her ankle seemed weak, but she thought it might have something to do with the way she sat at her computer. But by the fall, her walk was clearly unsteady, and she went to a doctor. Not long after, the weakness began spreading throughout the rest of her body. That was fall, and now it's spring, and Steele gets out in a wheelchair as her body slowly but surely becomes paralyzed. Is it Lou Gehrig's Disease, otherwise known as ALS? Maybe it is -- it sounds like it --but doctors haven't concluded that yet. They initially were worried it was Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a potentially deadly disease that affects the muscles, but they've ruled that out. She's currently being tested for Lyme Disease.

But her health insurance isn't paying for any of the medical tests. I haven't yet been able to find out the name of this company, which saddens me, since I'm sure they would love the publicity.

Her health insurance has decided that this undiagnosed condition is the result of a pre-existing condition, which makes me wonder -- if you don't know what an illness is, how can you with any real certainty decide that the patient must have already had it before they signed up for your insurance? But never mind. I'm not a doctor. Oh, that's right. Many of the people at health insurance companies who make these decisions aren't doctors either.

Meanwhile, Steele's hands are weakening, affecting her ability to write. She hasn't written an article in a month, and so not only does she owe tens of thousands of dollars in medical fees, she's now unable to work, and her mother has moved from Florida to Michigan to help take care of her and her grandson.

On the bright side, Steele's friends have been organizing a silent auction as a fund raiser, to help pay for the ongoing medical bills and an upcoming visit to the Mayo Clinic. It will be held this Saturday, April 12 at 7 p.m., in Traverse City. By the way, another writer -- Stephen King, maybe you've heard of him -- donated a signed book to the auction, along with numerous other books, artwork and services that local businesses have donated.

If anyone wants to make a donation for the auction, or just send money, you can email Steele's close friend and silent auction organizer at krishains@aol.com, or send donations to the Lori Hall Steele Benefit c/o Kristen Hains, 9696 Center Road, Traverse City, MI 49686. I kind of hate writing about a charitable cause in this economy -- I know folks are strapped. But obviously, some people aren't, and I just couldn't help wonder if I tried to spread the word about this mom's plight beyond Traverse City -- what would happen?

Geoff Williams is a business journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).
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