Local group helps combat health care debt

Millions of Americans are uninsured or underinsured.

In 2009, the U.S. Census bureau found that as many as 50.7 million, or about 16.7 percent of the population, was uninsured.

Here in Philadelphia, Marion Leary, 33 of Northern Liberties, had seen too many people negatively affected by being uninsured or underinsured, and she decided it was time to step in.

Leary, a critical care nurse and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, said the breaking point came when the mother of a friend of her’s had to make a difficult decision due to being underinsured for healthcare.

“Her mom literally had to decide between food and treatment,” she said, during an interview held Wednesday, Nov. 9.

It was then that Leary, who also has a background in event planning, decided to organize and effort to support Philadelphians who are uninsured or underinsured and have been hit with expensive medical bills.

About six weeks ago she launched Sink or Swim, an outreach effort that uses the internet and social messaging sites — she said Facebook has had a huge impact on the program — to connect those who need help affording life-saving services with anonymous donors worldwide.

While the service is non-sustainable — it intends to focus on providing one recipient with funds to afford a month of treatment and new recipients are selected every month — Leary said Sink or Swim could help provide brief relief for those struggling to come to terms with medical debts.

“Sink or Swim is just a small band-aid,” she said. “But we have a messed up healthcare system. I’m not smart enough to fix it, but in the meantime, I want to use my efforts to help out in this respect.”

The first recipient of funding through Sink or Swim was Fishtowner Pete Angevine — who recently launched the locally-based Little Baby’s Ice Cream Company.

Angevine was suffocating under medical debts after he received a liver transplant. He needed funding of about $330 to afford the many prescriptions he needs on a daily basis.

Sink or Swim, Leary said, achieved Angevine’s needed goal in just three days, thanks to the outreach possible through Facebook and the generosity of donors.

“Facebook is ridiculously amazing,” said a smiling Leary. “We’ve gotten donations from all over the world.”

With the funding, they were able to help Angevine afford his needed prescriptions — which amount to about 12 to 14 pills a day — for about six months.

According to Angevine, who was working as a musician four years ago when he learned he needed a new liver, Sink or Swim sought him out after hearing his story and they have been “fantastic.”

“I got really, really sick, really, really fast,” he said. “The costs I have to deal with monthly are going to be with me forever.”

Four years ago, when Angevine was just 24, he learned of his condition after his mother suffered a stroke. He said that he had felt tired often and believed he was simply depressed until someone told him his eyes seemed “yellow.”

“I thought I was just bummed out,” he said.

Even then, it took his ankles swelling up to the point that he nearly tumbled down a flight of stairs before heading to a hospital to see what was wrong.

“My girlfriend took me to the hospital and I came back five weeks later with somebody else’s liver,” he recalled. “I haven’t had an adult drink in four years.”

While insurance was able to help with the surgery, Angevine has been struggling to afford the prescriptions and he said Sink or Swim came in and really helped him out.

Also, about the girlfriend that took him to the hospital four years ago? She and Angevine got married recently.

“I’m really a lucky dude,” he said with a grin.

Sink or Swim now has a new recipient lined up and Leary said she is always looking for other recipients who are uninsured or underinsured and could use the lifeline that her group hopes to provide.

While it’s a young organization, Leary said that it has been successful already and if this continues, she’d like to bring it to other cities across the country.

“I want to get the word out that we exist and want to help,” she said. ••

For more information on Sink or Swim Philadelphia, or if you or someone you know could use the services the group provides, visit Sink or Swim Philadelphia’s Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Sink-or-Swim-Philadelphia/116398065104691 or Sink or Swim Philadelphia’s website at www.sinkorswimphiladelphia.org. You can also email Sink or Swim at sosphilly@gmail.com or mail at 630 N 3rd Street, PMB 83, Philadelphia, Pa 19123

Reporter Hayden Mitman can be reached at 215–354–3124 or hmitman@bsmphilly.com