America's Sweetheart Needs a Handout

Getting perfect 10s on the floor exercise and vault to win the individual all-around gold medal in the Olympics doesn't count for much when you roll into the hospital emergency room, unable to catch your breath.

America's Sweetheart Needs a Handout

Mary Lou Retton, once known as "America's Sweetheart," has fallen on hawd times. The former Olympic gold medalist and All Around Olympic Champion in 1984 was hospitalized recently with a rare form of pneumonia. Her daughter, in a series of Instagram posts, revealed that MLR had been relying on "machines to help her breathe," and had been in ICU for a number of days. Her condition improved, worsened, and then finally stabilized. As of this writing, she is recovering at home and getting her strength back. Probably the most surprising detail to come from this medical crisis is that her family had started a GoFundMe type account in an effort to raise money for her medical care.

"We ask that if you could help in any way, that 1) you PRAY! and 2) if you could help us with finances for the hospital bill," McKenna Kelley (her daughter) wrote on an appeal for $50,000 made through a SpotFund account. It is hard to imagine the athletic dynamo that captured the world's attention with her ear-to-ear smile, pixie haircut, and petite yet muscular gymnast figure was bedridden and struggling to breathe in an ICU ward. That she'd had to resort to a public appeal for medical care financing was for many, a shocker.

Unless you've had to deal with any facet of the American healthcare system.

Even with a top-tier Obamacare health insurance plan, or a gold-level private insurance policy, navigating and paying for medical attention is a nightmare. You know this if you so much as had to go get an annual breast exam or needed to find a way to get some Paxlovid when that home Covid test came up positive. What's your out-of-pocket? Does this count toward your deductible? Can you see a specialist to check out that awful recurrent skin condition, or do you need to get an appointment with your gatekeeper MD and then hope for a referral to that dermatologist? And wait, how long will you have to wait for that appointment? But you're not feeling well today! Should you go to the Emergency Room instead and pay an astronomical co-pay or can one of those Doc-in-the-Box centers on the corner just get me a prescription for an antibiotic??? But at least we have insurance.

Which brings me to another interesting detail about Mary Lou's situation. She, like many Americans, didn't have insurance.

NOTE: I need to reassure you that this is NOT a hit piece on Ms. Retton. I understand that life is complicated, and I'm sure there are ... reasons.

But I wonder why? Has she really fallen that far that she couldn't afford insurance premiums? She has 4 daughters, and it wasn't long ago that she divorced, so I'm sure that impacted her finances. But she still lives in what most of us would call a somewhat luxurious home. You can still see her once in a while as a commentator for televised gymnastics (among other appearances.) At one speaker's bureau, she can still command 25-40K in speaker's fees. There is no doubt she can inspire, and with that energy, (certainly after she gets her strength back!) she could do one helluva motivational presentation.

But plenty of folks know to make insurance a budget priority, as difficult as that can be. Think of all the families (mine!) struggling to put together a budget that factors in insurance, co-pays, missed work days, etc.

Could it be some kind of political thing? Does she dislike (like we all do) the healthcare/insurance "system" so much that she just... I dunno, opted out? Her family hasn't said.

Several web sources put her net worth at around $2 million, but it is hard to substantiate that number. Even if true, that does not necessarily mean that she has liquidity or cash flow to afford her medical bills. But still...

She must have known the need for medical insurance. It wasn't all that long after her short career as a gymnast that she began to have problems with her hips. It was discovered that she had dysplasia, and the resulting pain would require two hip replacements. No doubt the years of rigorous training, "sticking perfect landings," bashing her body and limbs into the parallel bars or an unforgiving floor exercise stage, and leaping on and off the balance beam had something to do with it. She also had spinal problems. All in all, she had almost 20 surgeries after her sports career.

Perhaps her husband had a job that had family insurance in their benefits package. Maybe that expense was overwhelming after the divorce? I know that, as a freelancer, my wife has usually been able to provide our coverage through a salaried job. Though this can change when the company she works for changes their benefits, or when she's changed jobs, or when an insurance company drops coverage for certain corporate groups. We've had to go on COBRA, Obamacare, and HMOs. It's complicated. It's confusing. It's so, so expensive.

But we try.

I vote for Universal Health Care. I'm a real commie/socialist in that way. The whole "Medicare for All" thing. Why not? "Well because it doesn't work, Chris! Do you know how long socialists have to wait for a doctor or a surgery in those commie countries?" As a matter of fact, I do. From several first-person reports, it seems no worse (and most often, much better) than what I've been through here, though without all the financial trauma. I've waited three months for a hip surgery in a town with one of the most advanced medical centers in the nation. I've had to wait weeks to see a specialist about particular problems, a couple of which I considered urgent. Just a few weeks ago, I had to pay cash for an MRI that was supposed to be covered under "my plan." It was, but the doctor's office couldn't contact the claims specialist in time to clear it, and so I paid "out of pocket" and hoped to turn in the receipt for reimbursement. I'm still waiting on an itemized bill from the radiologist, and then I'll have to wait for reimbursement, if it's still "approved."

I have several friends who rave about the quality of medical care in other countries. A client of mine and his partner moved to Canada for better care, (the partner had some form of dual citizenship and a medical condition that he found more and more difficult to get affordable treatment for in the states.) My brother-in-law had some chest pains in Germany, made his way to a local hospital, and was whisked away to the cath lab where he was stented to relieve the heart attack he was having. He walked away a couple of days later and was told by local Texas cardiologists that their German counterparts had done an excellent job in their work. And for only a couple hundred dollars. (He'd also had travel insurance, but payment, bureaucracy, and 'approvals' were never an issue.) A close friend of one my relatives did some "medical tourism" and went to have a joint replacement overseas. (Including travel and housing, still a fraction of the cost here.) If you have family or friends in South Texas, you can hear plenty of stories of folks crossing the southern border to get dental crowns and implants for 20-50% of the cost they would be here - usually performed by doctors trained here in the U.S.

And while you're across the southern or northern border, stop by a pharmacy and get your name-brand or generic drugs for a fraction of the price you pay here. Pet meds, too! (Note: the laws on this are very particular, though except for narcotics and other tightly controlled substances, they are loosely enforced. Prescription requirements are also hard to figure out.) Yet thousands of gringos cross the border daily for their blood pressure meds, anti-depressants, insulin, and Viagra. And Big Pharm pays a lot of money to lawmakers to strengthen those border crossing laws and crack down on Rx tourism.

Utah has a program for state employees who have certain high-cost medications. They will pay for round-trip flights and transportation into Mexico or Canada so that employees can purchase their meds there, saving the state hundreds of thousands of dollars.

And let's not get started on the price gouging that goes on for insulin, epi-pens, and well, almost all drugs. If drug companies aren't simply overcharging to take advantage of America's predatory healthcare system, then they're being traded or bought out by venture capital or mega-pharmacy groups. And that's whether we're talking about new, cutting-edge cancer medications or drugs that have been on the market for years,

The fundraising website for Mary Lou Retton set $50,000 as a fundraising goal, fairly modest in medical-debt-land. It doesn't take too many days in ICU on breathing machines to rack that up, much less the follow-up care, lost wages, and as mentioned, the specialty drugs that are often required. Even WITH insurance, it's easy to rack up tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt - high deductibles, Dr.s and therapies not included in a given insurance policy, home care equipment and nursing, and necessary over-the-counter meds.

Mary Lou's 50K fundraiser has raised almost $460,000 (so far.) Yeah, no one wants to see America's Sweetheart down and out. Houston furniture salesman and 'tireless self-promoter" "Mattress Mac" McIngvale donated $50K. Other large donors chipped in, and of course, thousands of fans and compassionate folks were moved by the thought of MLR in dire straits and donated small and large amounts as they could.

Most "GoFundMe" and similar campaigns for medical bills fail.

(From Forbes,) "Most campaigns had rather modest goals (a median of $8000), had a lot fewer donors (a median of 24), and raised a lot less money (a median of $1970). Only about a fifth got to 75% of their original goals and around a third reached the halfway mark.The median amount raised declined each year from a median of $4,150 in 2016 down to $265 in 2020."

$265 will barely buy you an in-hospital Advil.

Our own Texas Outlaw Writer, the late John Nova Lomax, had a GoFundMe page going. It was set up by his family in an effort to augment his medical insurance (from his wife's policy) and help with mounting expenses not covered by insurance and piling up due to his inability to work while hospitalized. His family set a reasonable goal of $30K. John was known and admired by thousands, though they were mostly middle and working class people. Mattress Mack probably would have had no use for John or his writing or his politics, if he'd ever even be aware of his existence.

After several months, John's fundraiser topped out at a bit over $38,000, even after he had passed and the fund morphed from a way to pay off medical debt to contributions toward funeral expenses and for his kids' financial support.

If you want to succeed in a fundraising campaign, it helps to be remembered as the lovely, superstar gymnast who smiled her way through the 1984 Olympics. I don't want to suggest that being a cute white girl was a factor, but certainly being a celebrity associated with the Republican Party didn't hurt. Having Ronald Reagan embrace you and in return doing a few campaign ads for him always helps your legacy.

And again, I don't want you to think this is a slam on Ms. Retton. Lots of good Republicans who voted against Obamacare (or other forms of expanded and publicly supported healthcare) end up falling ill, experiencing a debilitating accident, or dealing with a chronic medical condition. Many are shocked to see the retail cost of long-term care, an emergency, or ... any modern medical treatment.

In addition to crowdfunding, the New York Post (!) reports that "the US Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) is working through the United States Olympians & Paralympians Relief Fund to help alleviate medical costs for Retton." As well they should. Mary Lou benefitted from the Olympic games, of course. But the USOPC benefitted greatly over the years from her support as well. She was quite the poster girl for women's sports, gymnastics, and America's Olympic Team. Perhaps it was Stockholm Syndrome. Perhaps she felt a loyalty to the Olympic Committee - her medals and celebrity had certainly provided her a fantastic living (at the time) and worldwide recognition. Or maybe her Olympic coach, Béla Károlyi, the (then) beloved, thickly accented Hungarian Romanian-American whose star rose to new heights in correlation to MLR's success, had become somewhat of a father figure to her, one whom she became devoted to.

Regardless of her motivation, when the women's gymnastics sexual abuse scandal broke, her reputation as America's sweetheart was forever sullied. You remember that awful chapter in Olympic history? In 2014, women treated by Team USA doctor Larry Nassar made allegations that he'd touched them inappropriately during physical examinations. Literally hundreds of young women would come forward, resulting in Nassar losing his medical license, his job at Michigan State University, and of course, his position with USA Gymnastics. (He was tried and is currently in prison, and will remain for a long, long time.) Several of his victims - including the current American champion, Simone Biles - were (rightfully, as it turns out) suspicious that higher-ups in the Olympic hierarchy knew about the problem and didn't act. From

With the victims' support, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California introduced the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Acts to Congress in 2017, which was intended to make it a federal crime not to report suspected abuse within athletic organizations. The gymnastics federation offered sympathy to the victims, but didn't officially apologize and fought Feinstein's proposed measures. Retton sided with USA Gymnastics and described the environment within the sport as "happy" and "safe." The bill passed, regardless of Retton's testimony and opposition. 

Again, I have no idea why anyone would not support a legal measure to protect young women from powerful abusers. Retton would later claim that she had been lied to, regarding the allegations. After the bill passed, she would support it. For many victims, it was too little, way too late.

Her goofy, grinning coach, Béla Károlyi, also had some problems, and MLR would again, proudly defend his honor. While not directly implicated in the sex scandal, it was widely acknowledged that some of the abuse had taken place on Károlyi's training "ranch." Over time, his coaching style would be labeled as overbearing and even abusive by some of his gymnasts. (He and his wife, also a coach, have even been accused of beating their charges early in their careers.) It was alleged that he shamed the girls during practice, both for mistakes and for body weight. The body shaming and diet enforcement was so bad that members of the young men's team would sneak food to the young ladies during competition. He is known as hot-tempered, mercurial, insanely demanding, and as a perfectionist. To be fair, some of his successful gymnasts suggest that that's exactly what made them successful and him a great coach. Mary Lou is someone who gives credit to Béla for her success.

from Mary Lou Retton's fundraising page.
“People say, ‘She didn’t have health insurance, she didn’t have this or she didn’t have that.’ It’s kind of simple. Let any of us who never made a mistake in life cast the first stone. We’re here to help,” Jim told The Post, adding that Retton is “warm and bubbly.”

So says self-proclaimed Christian, "Mattress Mack" McIngvale, the multimillionaire furniture pitchman who is known for his well-publicized promotional philanthropy and (now his) ultra-right-wing politics.

Furniture peddler "Mattress Mack" with one of his buddies, the impeached and indicted Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. Seen here at an Astros game, probably discussing how to kick impoverished children off of the Medicaid rolls.

If this all makes you angry and you disagree that this has anything to do with politics... ask yourself: How does a country the size and wealth of America allow even its heroes and "sweethearts" fall down to beggary?

So make sure you have some medical insurance, though it may be unaffordable. Have a few grand ($$) lying around for deductibles, co-pays, out-of-pocket-not-covered medical stuff, and for all those drugs that aren't approved in your "plan." If you opt-out (for... reasons) or can't afford insurance, make sure that you're a famous celebrity or at least very well-connected. (Life Pro Tip: Don't be born or become poor.) As a backup plan, you can always throw an online fundraiser where you can expect a hundred bucks or so.

One final reminder: this was not intended to be a hit piece on folks who don't want to pay for insurance. Or who support a political party that vehemently fights against and constantly demonizes any type of universal health care or some form of Medicare for All. This shouldn't be construed as an admonishment to people like Mary Lou Retton or "Mattress" Mac McIngvale whose wealth and community/political connections give them a privilege that is unimaginable to us "regular folk." In their defense, what's probably unimaginable to them is the hardship that they bestow (through their political activity) on others. We shouldn't denigrate or call out their faux patriotism or their counterfeit Christianity that has no compassion for their fellow citizens or for "the least of these."

But maybe it's getting to be time that we should.

Chris Newlin worked around Tee-Vee stations before he went out on his own and continued to work in the world of video and multi-media production. Then came iPhones and YouTube accounts, so now he sits around full of self-pity and too many Keystone Lights. He still enjoys sunsets, long walks on the beach, and a good bowel movement, at least every now and then.