COLUMBIA — As a child, Jodie Ferguson spent many weekends in University Hospital, going through chemotherapy or getting tests done for leukemia. Sometimes her parents were there. Other times, Ferguson was alone with the nausea, vomiting and fatigue of the illness.
She doesn't ever want her 8-year-old daughter, Juniper, to feel that sick.
Ferguson, 26, of Columbia is considered cured of acute lymphocytic leukemia, which she contracted at age 12. But she still lives with its effects, namely, being unable to obtain health care coverage she can afford for herself and her daughter on a hairdresser's salary.
So to get her daughter, Juniper, health insurance, Ferguson gave up legal custody of her to her parents, Lawrence and Georgia Ferguson. It was a tough choice she had to make, but it ultimately came down to caring for her daughter before herself.
"If (Juniper) wasn't insured, I would obviously continue taking her to all her checkups and would not hesitate," she said. "But I do hesitate with myself. I don't go (to the doctor) when I'm sick. I tough it out at home."
Despite all the debate on health care reform, one thing many reformists agree on is the need to increase the number of people who are covered, especially by making it illegal to deny coverage because of pre-existing conditions. The disagreement arises over exactly how to achieve that.
Deb Wiethop, spokeswoman for Blue Cross/Blue Shield Missouri, said insurance companies could potentially cover people with pre-existing conditions and give them lower costs, but only "as long as everyone would be required" to have insurance.
"But to do that, there would also need to be subsidies," Wiethop said.
Ferguson's situation is not unusual. Wiethop said insurance companies often increase the cost of coverage when their customers have had a serious or chronic illness.
"If someone has a pre-existing condition and just comes on board, they're going to be using their benefits immediately," Wiethop said. "It's hard to sustain. In a risk pool, you want healthy people as well as unhealthy people because then you have enough dollars coming in."
Wiethop said a "healthy young person" would typically pay about $100 to $200 a month for health care. But when Ferguson and her father were shopping for health insurance options, she learned she would have to pay somewhere between $500 and $600 a month.
That price tag is much too high for Ferguson, who said she makes about $1,600 to $2,000 plus tips monthly at Studio E hair salon, 10 W. Nifong. She works there five times a week, and also takes classes on Monday and Wednesday nights at Columbia College.
Although Ferguson's relationship with her parents is good now, she said there was a time they worried her busy schedule would affect the time she spent with Juniper.
"I hate it," Ferguson said about not having custody of her daughter. "If my parents get pissed off at me, they can take her. It just stinks they have the power to do that."
Juniper's father, Hans Chrisman, recently moved from St. Louis to Columbia to help care for Juniper when Ferguson is at work or in class. In addition to living with Juniper, Ferguson shares her home with her sister, Stacy Marian; her niece, Aubrie; and her dog, Peanut.
"It's a good thing because at this point we're both single parents with a child, and we're both in the same situation," Marian said. "We're all very close and able to help each other."
Although Ferguson has a support network around her, she's striving for something more: a career with the good salary and insurance she feels she needs to regain custody of Juniper.
She has a wish for the what's happening in Washington D.C., too.
"I really hope they pass something so that you can't keep people from having insurance because of pre-existing conditions," Ferguson said. "Any change would be needed."