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High Country Health Care Crisis

robert-link-slingfundMountaineer Robert Link on the summit of Mount Visson in Antarctica. Courtesy photoIt was 2007 when Robert Link decided he needed a new hip. The longtime Mount Rainier guide—he’s summited more than 300 times—and design consultant with tent manufacturer SlingFin hobbled along for a few years, but his long-stressed hip finally caught up to him. “It was slowly degrading. I could walk off the pain,” Link says. “Then, around August of last year, it was like I hit a cliff. I had trouble standing, and by December I couldn’t lay down.”


One problem, though—Link didn’t have medical insurance.


Link’s situation isn’t uncommon. In mountain towns across North America, a large chunk of residents play and work in the outdoors without the security of medical insurance. For all too many outdoor athletes and guides, medical insurance is too expensive.


Injured outdoor enthusiasts often find themselves having to scramble to pay off their medical bills. In 2008, Squaw Valley skier Steve Wallace tried to clear a cat track, but came up short and ejected from his skis. He scorpioned and suffered extensive back injuries, most notably a spinal cord injury at the T9 vertebra. Wallace was left walking with a cane. He was also left with an $800,000 medical bill.


But Wallace was one of the lucky ones. He had only been in Tahoe for around five months after departing from Vermont. And since he still owned a house in Vermont, the state still considered him a resident. “I applied for Medicaid through the state of Vermont,” Wallace says. “And it covered most of my bills”—roughly $730,000 of the principal.


Other injured athletes aren’t so fortunate. Wallace says most of the people he knows in Tahoe who injure themselves have to work with the hospital. “A lot of the time, they’ll cut the bill in half,” he says. Hospitals often will set up a payment plan to cover what’s left. Still, on a ski resort or service industry employee’s earnings, the bills can take years or decades to pay off.


When I asked Wallace about the numbers over the phone, I heard him asking muffled questions, then: “None of us in this room have insurance… In Tahoe, I would say it’s 50-50. I know a ton of people who don’t have health insurance, and they’re skiing Squaw Valley, one of the most demanding mountains in the country.”


Rainier mountaineer Link considered going overseas for his operation. “In India, you can have a full hip replacement for $5,000,” he says. “Nine days in the hospital, English-trained doctors. The drawback was being in India and trying to remain healthy, which is tough even for a person of good health.” Insurance is difficult to come by for guides, too. Link says he doesn’t know of a guiding company that provides insurance for their employees, and most guides are hired on a sub-contracting basis, leaving them on their own for costly insurance. “And if you tell some insurance company you’re going mountaineering,” Link says, “they’re like, ‘Forget about it.'”


Ultimately, Link’s professional partners at SlingFin and Powder Corp CEO John Cumming, who guided with Link on Rainier for six years, kept him in America for his surgery, which was successful. Zemitis set up a fundraiser through SlingFund, the nonprofit branch of SlingFin. Cumming also stepped in and helped pay for Link’s hip replacement.


“Robert was too valuable to us,” says Martin Zemitits, a coworker of Link’s at SlingFin. “Finally, we decided enough’s enough, and we decided to get him a new hip.”


SlingFund is still raising money for Link’s expenses and recovery. You can donate here.

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