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Matt Hiltman: Health Insurance Would Help Matt and Other Georgians Recover From Mental Illness

Matt Hiltman lowered his shoulder as his horse galloped down the windswept field, kicking up clods of earth in its wake. His steel armor gleamed in the bright sun, and the audience on the sidelines roared with anticipation. Two horses and two riders fast approached each other on a collision course. The crowd fell silent as wood crumpled into metal with a loud crunch, and Matt’s lance struck true. The opponent careened off his horse and tumbled to the ground. Cheers burst out across the tournament field. Another victory for a professional jouster.

A lifelong Georgian, Matt is a world-class, full-contact jouster who competed in the sport for five years while also pursuing studies at Georgia State University. “If I had to describe myself, I would say that I’m an adrenaline junky,” said Matt. Beyond scuba diving, hang gliding and other high-octane activities, Matt’s thirst for adventure also inspired him to study diverse fields at college, including geology, chemistry, biology and history. He graduated magna cum laude from Georgia State University with a major in philosophy and minor in psychology, looking forward to a career in law or another field where he could serve the greater good.

Matt, seen here posing on horseback during a show, worked for five years competing and performing as a jouster.

“I’ve spent a lot of my life and a lot of time thinking about how I can best help the world,” Matt said, “And I’ve got some ideas that I’d like to share.”

The future was brimming with opportunity when Matt’s life hit an unexpected obstacle. At age 29, Matt was hospitalized due to mental illness. “He had an episode of psychosis, and it became obvious at that point that he had bipolar I,” said his mother, Dianne. In Matt’s words, “It was a major shake to my foundation … to discover that my brain is a tool that can be corrupted.”

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that causes intense shifts in a person’s mood, energy and ability to think clearly, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. People with bipolar disorder experience debilitating mood swings, known as mania and depression. About 4.4 percent of adults in the United States experience the disorder at some point in their lives, which generally starts showing symptoms when people reach their mid-20s.

Many treatments can help people living with bipolar disorder, including medications, therapy and lifestyle adjustments. People can lead successful lives after finding the right care regimen and combination of treatments, but that usually requires extensive trial and error. Doctors still have a limited understanding of how the brain works and how best to treat mental illness.

Once I’m healthy, I’ll be able to get out there and help people.
-Matt Hiltman

“It’s been difficult, it’s been very difficult over the last few years,” Matt said.

For Matt, health insurance has been a major barrier to finding the effective treatments that would allow him to begin recovery. Bipolar disorder caused him to lose his job and his health insurance. Untreated, the symptoms make it nearly impossible to work a full-time position with benefits. Matt doesn’t earn enough money to receive subsidies for individual health insurance, so he can’t afford coverage from the private marketplace. He also doesn’t qualify for Georgia’s current Medicaid program.

Watch Matt share his story in his own words.

“He can’t work ‘til his treatment is better,” said Dianne.

Matt sees hope in an advanced brain therapy called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. Unfortunately, he cannot receive this cutting-edge procedure without health insurance. Matt is stranded in his recovery process without any affordable health care options.

“There are several treatments that I don’t have access to because I don’t have health care insurance,” says Matt. “That’s frustrating knowing that I might feel relief . . . knowing that it’s out there, and I can’t get it, is very frustrating.”

Matt has virtually exhausted his options for treatment without health insurance.

While Matt and his family have struggled to access treatment, Georgia lawmakers have repeatedly rejected a policy that would provide affordable health coverage to Matt and almost half a million Georgians: Medicaid expansion. About 25 percent of uninsured Georgians who would qualify for coverage through Medicaid expansion suffer from mental illness or substance use disorder.

“He’s not afraid to work hard,” says Dianne. “He’s not unwilling. He just can’t right now. And there’s not anything we can do.”

A new wave of state leaders will have a fresh opportunity in 2019 to tackle Georgia’s growing health crisis and draw down federal funds to broaden health coverage. By allowing Georgians like Matt to access and afford needed medical services, lawmakers can help thousands statewide to get healthy and stay healthy. The policy is popular with the public as well, with more than 70 percent of Georgians supportive of Medicaid expansion according to recent polls.

He’s not afraid to work hard. He’s not unwilling. He just can’t right now. And there’s not anything we can do.
-Dianne Hiltman

For Matt, the idea of getting healthy brings him back to his dream of helping others. “Really it just comes down to . . . you know, once I’m healthy, I’ll be able to get out there and help people.”

Before he’s able to help others, Matt will need to find the right combination of tools to treat his mental illness. He and his family continue to pursue every possible lead, including out-of-state research studies and charity care. But without health insurance, Matt’s recovery appears stuck, and a promising future seems just beyond his reach. In the past, Matt’s hard work helped him succeed in the classroom and in the saddle. Now, his future success rests in the hands of the 236 men and women of Georgia’s General Assembly.

“Having affordable health care and health insurance would give me hope. It would give me more access to different treatments. Mostly, it would give me hope.”

If you or loved ones are living with mental illness, please consider visiting the National Alliance on Mental Illness – Georgia or calling their helpline at 770-408-0625 for more information and support.

To show your support for expanding health coverage in Georgia, please consider sending a short e-mail to your state lawmakers through an easy-to-use form.

Julia Asherman: Many farmers struggle to protect most valuable part of their farm—themselves

Originally posted by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute

Julia Asherman is a first-generation farmer who owns and operates Rag & Frass Farm in Twiggs County. Rag & Frass produces beautiful vegetables, fruits and specialty flowers for customers throughout Middle and North Georgia. “I feel like farming is just very fulfilling,” says Julia, “I’ve always been a plant person.”

As an entrepreneur and small business owner, Julia wears all the hats in her company. She works nearly 365 days a year to make her farm profitable in the face of uncertainty from weather, pests and markets. Julia leverages available tools like farm insurance to help mitigate risk for her business, but she hasn’t been able to protect the most important part of her farm: herself.

For years, Julia had no affordable health insurance options. She wasn’t eligible for Georgia’s restrictive Medicaid program and didn’t earn enough money to qualify for financial help to buy health insurance on the marketplace. Her health premium would’ve been $500 a month, almost twice what she pays for her mortgage.

“I have a farm insurance policy that covers if a tornado takes down a greenhouse, and I have liability that covers if someone gets sick from something I produce,” Julia says, “but I don’t have anything protecting me.”

Farming is a fundamental profession, yet agriculture is also one of the most dangerous industries in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Every day, about 100 agricultural workers suffer an injury that forces them to miss work. Farmers are nearly twice as likely to die on the job as police officers and five times as likely as firefighters. From tractors rolling over to snake bites, farmers face frequent threats to their health.

I have a farm insurance policy that covers if a tornado takes down a greenhouse, and I have liability that covers if someone gets sick from something I produce, but I don’t have anything protecting me.Julia Asherman, Rag & Frass Farm

“I’m on a tractor, I’m using heavy equipment, I’m on ladders,” Julia says. “I get on my own roof when I have to patch the roof. There are just a lot of risks.”

Up to 4,200 Georgia agriculture workers could gain affordable health insurance if state lawmakers expand eligibility for the state Medicaid program, according to a 2013 analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. All told, Julia and 470,000 other Georgians could be covered through Medicaid expansion. For every one dollar invested by state leaders, Georgia would receive nine federal dollars back for health care. That’s a return on investment that any small business owner would love to have, according to Julia.

Georgia’s Medicaid program currently provides health coverage to almost 2 million residents, including about 1.3 million children and half a million Georgians who are blind, disabled or elderly. About 8 percent of Georgians who qualify for Medicaid are pregnant women or parents with dependent children and very low income (e.g., a family of three would have to bring in less than $6,612 a year to qualify).

Hear Julia’s story in her own words with this short video.

Julia saw these limits firsthand when she went to her local DFCS office to ask about Medicaid coverage for herself given her low income. “They actually told me that I would need to be blind or pregnant to get [Medicaid].”

Beyond the risks of injuries on the job that could cripple her farm, Julia hasn’t been able to afford basic preventative care like mammograms or physicals in recent years. She sees public investments in other local services and can’t figure out why health care solutions are ignored by state leaders. “I don’t understand why there’s a public library but nobody cares if I can get a mammogram.”

I see my health as vital to my farm’s existence and success. If I’m not healthy or able to work because I’m injured, that’s the thing that makes me worry about losing the farm.

While Julia has struggled for years to stay healthy and grow her business, state lawmakers have repeatedly rejected billions of federal dollars meant to pay for health coverage. Every year state lawmakers block Medicaid expansion, Georgia forfeits $3 billion to the federal government. Those dollars could be used to put an insurance card in the pockets of farmers and entrepreneurs like Julia. The majority of people who would be covered by Medicaid expansion are working.

Julia packs up after a successful day at the farmer’s market 

Julia has persevered through all challenges that have confronted Rag & Frass farm thus far and cultivated a growing small business with customers across the state. Yet the biggest risk outside of her control gives her pause.

“I see my health as vital to my farm’s existence and success,” says Julia. “If I’m not healthy or able to work because I’m injured, that’s the thing that makes me worry about losing the farm.”

You can make a difference for Julia and 470,000 other Georgians by showing your support for Medicaid expansion. Contact your lawmakers today. And visit Rag & Frass to buy incredible produce and flowers!