Julie Pierce lights up at her son's choice in clothes.
"They fit him," she says softly.
The clothes are just one reminder of her late husband, Tracy Pierce, a journeyman carpenter who died of kidney cancer on January 18, 2006. Framed photos of the elder Tracy Pierce line the living room mantel. Julie Pierce keeps her late husband's mesh radiation mask — a perfect outline of the contours of Tracy Pierce's face — on a dresser in her bedroom. She has also kept his Cadillac and the home in Mission that her late husband moved the family to in May 2005.
Julie Pierce turns somber when she talks about the kidney cancer that killed her husband. Pierce told her late husband's health-care horror story in Sicko, Michael Moore's documentary that deconstructs the U.S. health-care industry. She explained in the movie that her husband died because her insurance company and her employer refused to pay for a bone-marrow transplant.
Now the kidney cancer that killed Tracy Sr. could kill Tracy Jr.
Julie Pierce says her husband's doctor told the family that Tracy Jr. has a 50 percent chance of having the cancer gene. They won't know unless Tracy Jr. undergoes testing, which would need to be done at the National Cancer Institute in Maryland.
Julie Pierce says she asked her insurance company, Coventry Health Care, if the $6,000 test would be covered. She was told no. "So then, you think, if I get the testing and it comes back that he has the gene, I already know that my insurance isn't going to pay for it," Julie Pierce tells the Pitch. "And the test is too expensive for me to pay out of pocket."
Tracy Pierce Jr. says he's not sure what will happen to him if he has the gene. "It bothers me because I know that if I have the gene, I know that I'm not going to get the care. Because I know that they denied my dad his care," Tracy Jr. says. "They didn't pay for my dad's [care]. They didn't pay for any of his treatments. So now when I get it, I don't think that I've got a chance."
On April 10, 2004, Tracy Pierce Sr. was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma, the most common type of kidney cancer. The Pierces were insured through Julie's employer, St. Joseph Medical Center, where she works in the intensive care unit. St. Joseph and her insurance provider, First Health Coventry (now Coventry Health Care Inc.), refused to pay for a doctor-recommended bone-marrow transplant, which her insurance provider labeled "experimental."
Julie Pierce testifies before Congress about the death of her husband:
"For 12 years, I paid out of my paycheck for my insurance, and he'd never used it," Julie Pierce says. "He was never sick a day in his life. Then he got that, and they weren't there for him. You think that, you work for a hospital, you might get good care. But it was like his life was nothing."
The procedure would have cost $250,000 upfront — money they didn't have.
The Pierces appealed three times. They were denied each time. Julie Pierce demanded a meeting with the hospital's board of trustees. On May 11, 2005, the Pierces met with the board.
Pierce recalls one board member expressing sympathy for her husband's sickness.
"Your sympathy's not going to do me any good when I'm burying him next year," Julie Pierce says she answered. "If that was [then-CEO] Bruce Van Cleave's wife, I bet you'd approve it."
Eight months later, Tracy Pierce Sr. died. "I don't know how the people on that board can look in the mirror every day and know that they've killed my husband," Julie Pierce says.
Coventry spokeswoman Catherine Campbell did not return a call from the Pitch. St. Joseph Medical Center spokeswoman Deborah White says that, due to privacy laws, she cannot comment on Tracy Pierce's care. White referred the Pitch to a statement issued by St. Joseph CEO Gordon Docking after Sicko's release in late June. "Tracy Pierce's situation has saddened all of us at St. Joseph Medical Center," Docking says in the statement. "We continue to keep his family in our thoughts and prayers."
The insurance company did approve some care for Tracy Pierce, including interleukin infusions, daily doses of radiation and, as he died, hospice care.
Tracy Pierce endured the treatments as long as he could, but the cancer kept growing. He needed a bone-marrow transplant.
The insurance company approved checking Tracy Pierce's brothers to see if their bone marrow matched his. A couple of weeks later, a nurse called and said Tracy Pierce's youngest brother was "a perfect match." The approval turned into a cruel tease. The hospital and the insurance company denied Tracy Pierce the bone-marrow transplant.
Julie Pierce still works for St. Joseph Medical Center. "I want them to look at me every day. I want them to know this was wrong. I can't bring Tracy back, but I don't want this to happen to anyone else."
That includes Tracy Jr.
Doctors told Julie Pierce that, if her son has the same kidney cancer gene as his father, it could show up in him a decade earlier.
"It's like I could be living it all over again, and you know that he'll get it 10 years earlier than what his dad did, so that would make him 25," Julie Pierce says. "Here we are, a Catholic hospital that is supposed to make people well, and we don't even take care of our own. It was just like my husband's life meant nothing. And in a way, they're saying that my son's life means nothing."
Julie Pierce's mother told her that maybe someone would see Sicko and pay for the tests for Tracy Jr.
"I go, 'That will be a miracle,'" Julie Pierce says.