SOUTHINGTON - Warren's idled RG Steel mill no doubt means hard times for 1,000 out-of-work steelworkers, but for Brenda Fisher of Southington, the loss of her husband's steel job and health insurance may mean the difference between life and death.
The 41-year-old mother of five girls was diagnosed in April with multiple myeloma, her second bout with bone cancer in three years. It was just a month later that the family was blindsided by another major blow when her husband, Jeff Fisher, lost his job of 16 years when RG Steel shut down and filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy.
''They had me on radiation and chemo, high-dose chemo, and it didn't put it in remission. It slowed it down some,'' Brenda said last week. She sat at the kitchen table holding her husband's hand as she spoke.
Over her shoulder was slung a small black tote carrying morphine pumping into her body through an implant visible just above the neckline of her sweater.
The pain and sickness are constant, along with exhaustion and fluctuating body temperature.
Her best hope at beating the cancer that typically has a less than a five-year survival rate is a costly bone marrow / stem cell transplant. It had been scheduled for October at the Cleveland Clinic.
Tribune Chronicle photos / R. Michael Semple
Jeff Fisher, right, and his wife, Brenda, are struggling with health care costs ever since Jeff was laid off from RG Steel. Brenda, who has cancer, had to cancel her stem cell treatments from lack of health insurance.
''But at the end of August I lost my insurance through his company,'' Brenda said. A short time later the stem cell transplant was canceled.
''They kind of make it your decision, but it's their decision,'' she said. After that came phone calls, discussions and red tape about other financial options. ''They were trying to get us some financial help, but to qualify, you can't have any insurance.''
Now labeled "disabled," Brenda had obtained Medicare, but the coverage is limited. There is no prescription drug coverage, and the medical coverage is an 80-20 split. The stem cell transplant would mean at least $50,000 out of pocket, not something the family can easily afford at a time when they are struggling to pay their bills and are unsure how long they will be able to manage their mortgage.
Donations to the Brenda Lee Fisher Fund are being accepted at all Chase Banks.
Brenda Fisher Cancer Benefit Spaghetti Dinner is 2 to 6 p.m. Saturday at Southington Local Schools. Cost is $8 for adults and $4 for children.
''It's just a shuffle. See what you can pay this month and what I can pay next month,'' Jeff said. ''It's so stressful. You just think, what are we going to do if we lose our house? The reality is, that's the one bill that gets paid before everything else.''
Sadly, that rule even applies even to much of Brenda's medication.
The family's portion of Brenda's morphine pump is $50 per day, and the price for just one chemotherapy medication is nearly $20,000 for 21 pills each month.
''I am just not taking them,'' she said. ''You can't afford to buy those. We got one of the drug companies that is going to donate their pills to me, but unless something happens, it's not really worth taking one of them.''
The United Steelworkers are working to help bring new options to laid-off steelworkers like Fisher.
In recent weeks the union announced receipt of a bridge grant and enrollment in a U.S. Department of Labor program known as the Health Coverage Tax Credit. The program would help the laid-off RG Steel workers pay premiums on ongoing health insurance.
The program would pay for 72.5 percent of the health insurance premiums for the laid-off workers, but the Fishers said upon closer examination of the program they learned that with Brenda's illness considered a "pre-existing condition," the premium would reach close to $9,000 a month.
''There's just no possible way,'' Jeff said.
USW Local 1375 president Darryl Parker said he realizes the gravity of the situation.
''We have several employees who have family members with some type of serious illness,'' Parker said. "It's been really traumatic, the impact on our membership. It has been a grave situation for a lot of them.''
The union also has been doing what it can, helping with gift baskets and grocery gift cards for needy members.
''He is a hard-working guy,'' Parker said of Jeff. ''He worked a lot of hours and saved as much as he could to provide for his family. They are a young family, and we are going to do all we can to help them out.''
Still Jeff's options seem to be running thin.
''They have got all these different programs out there that I have filed for, but in the end, they say I don't qualify,'' he said.
Jeff said he sends resumes out every week, but believes his skills aren't in high demand. He has had job opportunities that would involve traveling, but that is not something he wants to do with his wife's illness. He now is considering returning to trade school.
''It's not even about me,'' Brenda said as she dabbed at the corner of her eye. ''I have five girls.''
Four of the girls, including the youngest twin 10-year-olds, attend Southington Local Schools. The fifth, Shelby, 20, has graduated. All five huddled quietly around their mom last week in their grandmother's kitchen.
''They have their days,'' Brenda said of the difficulty they encounter with her illness. ''They come in and talk to me and ask me if I'm going to die. Most of the time they just try to make me laugh. They are used to it. It's sad that they have to be.''
Still the family tries to keep their hopes up. Brenda laughed as she spoke about playing the Powerball lottery last week.
''There are people out there that are worse off than we are, but it really sucks,'' Jeff said.''We never thought that mill would ever close and it did. We never thought at all we would lose our benefits that quick. We never saw it coming at all.''