As the longest government shutdown in United States history drags on, over 800,000 federal employees are discovering what most Americans hope to never find out: how long they can go without a paycheck.
As families look to cut expenses and find alternative sources of income, there’s one expense that looms ever larger as funds dry up: healthcare costs. For newlywed Mallory Lorge, who has type 1 diabetes, the shutdown means she’s forced to ration her insulin, a practice that can lead to complications, coma, and death.
Lorge is down to two vials of insulin, but it’s a $300 copay to get more. Without a paycheck coming in, she can’t afford it. Last week, when her blood sugar rose to dangerous levels last week, she didn’t take insulin. “I just went to bed and hoped I’d wake up,” she told NBC News.
Lorge works for the Department of Interior. She got married in September 2018, and she and her husband looked forward to buying a new house and starting a family. But when they returned from their honeymoon, Lorge had to go to the hospital for double pneumonia, sepsis, and respiratory failure. Her diabetes complicated her care, and she had to go on medical leave.
In late December, the couple found out that the government shutdown would dry up Lorge’s paychecks. They also started to receive medical bills from her hospital stay, and they were forced to consolidate medical debt with a $40,000 loan. Lorge canceled all her follow-up medical appointments to save money.
“I’ve been a federal employee for six years, and I love it. I don’t get paid much, but I love working for the American people. That the government has put us in this position is like a punch in the gut,” she told NBC News. She estimates that she and her husband can make ends meet on his income alone for three or four more weeks at most.
Many federal employees have had to apply for assistance. Food banks have reported an uptick in visits from federal workers looking to fill their pantries. The majority of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. Fifty-eight percent have less than $1,000 in savings, according to a GOBankingRates survey.
Beth Ann Bovino, S&P’s chief U.S. economist, estimated that the country will lose approximately $1.2 billion for each week part of the government is shut down. “That may seem like pennies for the world’s biggest economy, but it means a lot to those workers trying to cover their household costs without their paychecks,” she said. The government will have been shutdown for 24 days as of January 14.
For people with insulin-dependent diabetes, and anyone in need of life-saving medication, how many billions is hardly important when one missed prescription could put their lives at risk. The government and drug manufacturers are already facing pressure regarding skyrocketing insulin prices.
In November 2018, parents protested rising insulin prices by carrying the ashes of their children—who died due to insulin rationing—to drug manufacturer Sanofi’s headquarters. Even if someone manages to ration and survive, the damage the practice causes is likely irreversible.
For federal workers like Mallory Lorge, thinking about the long-term consequences of insulin rationing isn’t a luxury she can afford. It’s enough to get through each day. “You got hopes and dreams and then stuff like this kind of puts it on the back burner now,” she told NBC News. “My husband and I were talking and saying, ‘Let’s just worry about each day. We can’t worry about our dreams now.'”
UPDATE: On January 14, 2019, Lorge posted on her Facebook page that she is no longer rationing insulin due to the generosity of strangers, friends, and family. “I don’t have a gofundme because I know there are so many who are in a worse situation than me. Some people have been sneaking money into my paypal and venmo, despite my protests. I don’t think I can pay these beautiful souls back, but I promise I will pay it forward,” she writes.
Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.