Editor's note: This is a part of a package of stories about Utahns and medical debt. See Relates Stories box below.
Born two months premature, Mike McConkay has overcome health challenges his entire life, including rheumatic and scarlet fevers as a child.
Fourteen years ago he had a heart attack, a scare that prompted wholesale changes in his diet and exercise habits. Then in 2008, he was diagnosed with diabetes.
Now doctors say the 63-year-old needs a liver transplant.
"About four years ago he lost his strength and energy and he would forget things. I thought he was developing dementia," said his wife of 20 years, Denise McConkay. "But one evening over dinner he was so confused he tried taking a drink from his cell phone."
Denise rushed him to an emergency room, and after a series of blood and neurological tests, doctors diagnosed Mike with non-alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver.
Mike took early retirement from his job as a sales manager at a drug company. "They offered me a package I couldn't turn down, health insurance until I qualify for Medicare," he said. "I'm lucky, I don't have to pay any premiums."
Like most insurance plans, though, it doesn't cover everything.
Mike's substantial medical bills have already forced the Midvale couple into bankruptcy once. Because his liver has trouble removing toxins from his body, he has been hospitalized for renal failure. In 2010, he had his infected gall bladder removed.
Tax forms for that year show the McConkays' out-of-pocket medical costs were $37,006. In 2011, they were $7,035. His transplant is estimated to cost more than a half a million dollars.
"We know where every penny is going on payday," said Denise, who works full-time at a Holiday Inn Express and sells real estate on the side.
To pay down some of their bills, the McConkays sold their home. They can't file bankruptcy again for several years. So they hold bake sales and bowling benefits, which have netted them about $5,500.
"I've been collecting things, blankets and some crystal candle sticks, a two-night stay at the Venetian in Vegas," said Denise. "We're hoping to get a local restaurant to host a dinner an auction for us. People are very generous."
Mike works part-time for the Greater Salt Lake Bowling Association. But after the transplant he'll have to stay home for about 100 days because his immune system will be too fragile due to the anti-rejection drugs.
"We plan for the worst, hope for the best and put our faith in the man upstairs," said Denise.
Climbing to safety
Data on Utah bankruptcies filed between 2003 and 2007 suggests medical debt is linked to repeat bankruptcies. The higher the medical debt as a share of all debt, the more likely someone is to file again.
Source: Dissertation by Levi Pace, a Ph.D. candidate in economics at the University of Utah