Social media can be overwhelming. Like a lot of people, I’ve found myself stepping back from it lately. There is one thing I will never scroll past, though: baby pictures. (Well, that and jokes.)
And Eryn Mullins is good for both.
Eryn is a new mom and hairstylist from Sumiton, a small town in Walker County in northwest Alabama.
I spoke to her the week she returned to work after her maternity leave. Thanks to her husband’s insurance, she and her baby were well cared for during labor, delivery and the postpartum period.
The smiles in her family photos jump through the screen. It’s hard not to think she’s got it all together.
But Eryn will be the first to tell you that it wasn’t always this way. Things were much different for her just a few years ago.
‘A million things to worry about’
“Straight out of beauty school, there’s a million things to worry about,” Eryn said. “When I was 20, I suffered from extreme panic attacks, and I needed to be hospitalized. After that, it still took eight months and four or five different medications to get to a steady place.”
Eryn was diagnosed with a panic disorder that gave her “anxiety that you couldn’t just fix.” Her condition required regular doctor’s visits and consistent medication. Thanks to her dad’s insurance, she was able to keep everything under control.
Then Eryn turned 26. That’s the age when young adults are no longer eligible for their parents’ insurance under the Affordable Care Act. And things started to look very different.
“I was on my dad’s insurance, and then suddenly, I wasn’t. I was uninsured for three years after that,” Eryn said.
“I got a hospital bill for $2,500, and that’s when I decided I was going to try my hardest to not go to the doctor ever again.”
One thing Eryn didn’t plan for was having to come off all her medications immediately. For her, “cold turkey” meant no prescription refills. It also meant no talk therapy and no visits with a psychiatrist to manage her mental health.
“I experienced so many adverse side effects that put me back in the hospital, suffering from withdrawal,” she said. “We all have brains; not all of them are healthy. Mine wasn’t.”
Any way Eryn looked at it, she was paying hundreds of dollars out of pocket every few months. Sometimes it was for a hospital stay. Once, she spent $400 for just one routine visit with a mental health provider.
“I worked in a high-stress environment my first year as a stylist,” she said. “It’s a vicious cycle. I needed mental help but couldn’t afford it.”
Being uninsured is expensive. And without consistent medical or mental health coverage, those expenses mount for many stylists. After facing a $2,500 medical bill while uninsured, Eryn told herself she would do whatever she could to avoid going to the doctor.
Unfortunately, Eryn is not alone in receiving eye-popping medical bills while uninsured. Most of her coworkers are uninsured, she said, and seeing them navigate that is heartbreaking. More than 22% of people in Walker County are facing medical debt along with her right now.
In all, 6,108 people in Walker County do not have health coverage. That number would drop by more than half if Alabama expanded Medicaid to cover adults with low incomes.
Across Alabama, about 10,000 stylists and other personal care workers would benefit from Medicaid expansion. More than 220,000 Alabamians are caught in the coverage gap, unable to afford health insurance. Another 120,000 or more are stretching to pay for private or employer-based insurance.
‘Hanging up the apron’
Hairstylists often can set their own schedule, but that means income fluctuates. And especially in the beginning, they are paying for all their own supplies and losing a lot of money.
“Starting off as a new stylist is the hardest part,” Eryn said. “There’s no method to the madness.”
Eryn said it is becoming more common to see coworkers “hang up their apron.” That’s code for leaving the hair business altogether, often to train in another industry.
“It’s exhausting,” she said. “I feel like everyone I know is always putting money back, for every little (and big) thing. And you have to be really lucky to even have any left over for medical bills.”
Eryn said she loves what she does and doesn’t plan on quitting anytime soon, though she jokes about it sometimes.
“There are days where I debate working at Big Lots or Walmart. It’s steady, and they probably get insurance at full time,” she said.
A path forward
After seeing so many friends walk away from behind the chair, Eryn said she didn’t know how she would make it as a mom and a stylist.
“We were expecting our first baby soon, and I had no idea how I would handle maternity leave,” she said. “I was able to make a deal on my booth rental, but that’s it. If I didn’t have the support of my husband, I don’t know if I could even afford a child.”
Through it all, Eryn said she still would choose to become a stylist all over again.
“I’m glad I stuck with it,” she said. “It was a rough few years, but now I get to coordinate my life and schedule the way I want, which is much better for my mental health. I think that’s probably true of any career.”
Eryn said she hopes discussing her experiences can help improve life for hairstylists and other Alabamians living without health coverage.
“I wanted to share my story because it’s worth it to me if even one person feels less alone,” she said.
ABOUT ALABAMA ARISE AND COVER ALABAMA
Whit Sides is the Cover Alabama storyteller for Alabama Arise, a statewide, member-led organization advancing public policies to improve the lives of Alabamians who are marginalized by poverty. Arise’s membership includes faith-based, community, nonprofit and civic groups, grassroots leaders and individuals from across Alabama. Email: email@example.com.
Arise is a founding member of the Cover Alabama coalition. Cover Alabama is a nonpartisan alliance of advocacy groups, businesses, community organizations, consumer groups, health care providers and religious congregations advocating for Alabama to provide quality, affordable health coverage to its residents and implement a sustainable health care system.