Uninsured cancer patient also a victim of bad timing

Dawn Villarreal-Nutt is a victim of bad timing.

She recently bought health insurance after years of going without it, even getting it for the full-time employees at Game Nut, the Lawrence video game store she owns with her husband, Gene. All she had to do was wait 90 days for the coverage to kick in. What could possibly go wrong in 90 days?

How about everything.

In late March, Villarreal-Nutt was eating beanie weenies she had made for her granddaughter. They didn't sit well in her stomach, giving her indigestion and pain that didn't seem normal. Still, she was reluctant to get medical attention, after hearing stories of people racking up huge medical bills and then coming to find out all they had was gas. But the pain eventually grew too severe to ignore, so she went.

Within two hours, Villarreal-Nutt was in emergency surgery at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, where doctors removed a baseball-sized cancerous mass along with about foot of her colon.

"It's been a long month," said an exhausted Gene Nutt, sitting next to his wife's hospital bed more than three weeks after they arrived. Complications from surgery had added to Villarreal-Nutt's stay. She also had to undergo a procedure to have an infection removed, putting her in the intensive-care unit for a week.

If Villarreal-Nutt is guilty of bad timing, her punishment is tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills.

Dawn's friend Crystle Dennison, who met Dawn because their partners play in the same softball league, has started an online fundraising campaign at, aiming to lessen the emotional and financial blow her friend has been hit with at the worst possible time.

Local business owners

Gene and Dawn moved to Lawrence from Topeka nearly a decade ago, bringing Game Nut with them. The retail outlet did so well the Nutts opened a second location, on Iowa Street.


Dawn Villarreal-Nutt rests in a Lawrence Memorial Hospital bed as her husband, Gene Nutt, sits by her bedside. Dawn is recovering from colon cancer after suddenly and unexpectedly finding out she had the disease, while the couple was days away from getting health insurance. A friend, Crystle Dennison, has started a online fundraiser for her to help pay for Dawn's medical bills.

Self-employed, the Nutts were priced out of the private health insurance market. They made sure to get routine checkups; Villarreal-Nutt paid out of pocket to get blood work done each year like clockwork. But colonoscopies aren't advised for people under the age of 50, after which 90 percent of colon cancers occur; Villarreal is 47. (Doctors are uncertain what caused her affliction but surmise it could have been brought on by smoking cigarettes, a habit she kicked 15 years ago.)

Through the expansion of their business, the Nutts eventually got enough employees to qualify for a discounted group insurance rate. They just didn't get it in time.

Once Villarreal-Nutt's insurance policy fully kicks in, in July, she will be partway through her six months of chemotherapy treatments. Most of the spending — up to hundreds of thousands of dollars worth — will already have taken place.

Gene joked that he planned to ask the hospital staff to give him the bill before he left. "That way, I'm close to the ER," he said.

Besides the online fundraiser, the Nutts intend to sell T-shirts promoting colon cancer awareness (possible slogan: "Just scope it"). They also plan to apply for the hospital's charity program, and pay as much out of their pockets as possible.

"We want to do the best we can," Gene said. "But we don't want this to bankrupt us and lose our business on top of it."

Villarreal-Nutt is home now, awaiting the start of chemo and medical bills to begin piling up. The Lawrence resident may just have had exquisite timing after all. If she hadn't found the cancer when she did, she might not have the opportunity for the full recovery her doctor expects her to have. She'll even be able to eat beanie weenies with her granddaughter again.


snitty 5 years ago

This outrage is becoming typical. The health insurance model fails again! Casino capitalism at its cruelest, being forced to pay extortionate rates for inadequate coverage, or no coverage at all, if you happen to be "unlucky". Heath insurance is garbage, and so is the ACA. We need single payer, or we will continue to see families and small businesses wiped out.

Carol Bowen 5 years ago

This has nothing to do with ACA. ACA will cover this type of situation next year.

snitty 5 years ago

By that do you mean that there will no longer be any waiting period to commence coverage?

Carol Bowen 5 years ago

I have not read detail about waiting periods or not, but she would not be denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition in 2014 because of ACA. Under present and past insurance practices, insurance companies denied coverage for all sorts of insignificant reasons.

optimist 5 years ago

Government is not the answer. It is the problem. The reason this couple, who is self-employed, found health insurance to be too expensive, is partly due to government's restrictions on how health insurance is delivered. If they had been able to join with other small businesses to develop their own buying group they could have gotten discounted rates. You people out there need to better understand not just why health insurance is costly but how the government is often the cause of it. Single payer will drive down costs in the short-term but increase costs and reduce the quality of service over time. I realize how hard it is to fathom for some but I can only assume that is why you look to government to fix your problems rather than take responsibility yourself. As this family is sadly figuring out even expensive insurance is cheaper than the cost of this illness. I've known many self-employed people in my time and many of them carried healthcare insurance that didn't cost much. Many of these individual and family plans only cover the most catastrophic of illness or injury and not so much of the routine stuff but if they all did that insurance would be cheaper. I very much feel for these people. I genuinely hope she gets well. I thank them for sharing their story so that others may learn from it.

snitty 5 years ago

Do you work for the insurance industry? If so, I can understand why you are an optimist.

average 5 years ago

"Single payer will drive down costs in the short-term but increase costs and reduce the quality of service over time. I realize how hard it is to fathom for some"

Yeah... it's real hard to fathom for those of us who, you know, own passports. We've seen all these countries where costs skyrocketed after single-payer. Like... um... well... none of them actually.

mom_of_three 5 years ago

the couple have been self employed for years and have never had health insurance. That is shameful to live in a country where you can't afford health insurance. Who cares how it happens, but everyone should be able to afford coverage.

Douglas Thompson 5 years ago

Can't afford, or didn't prioritize it? I have a problem when people say that others can't afford coverage. There are people who truly can't afford coverage, but there are also many people who just don't prioritize health insurance and thus spend money on other things instead of buying coverage. If someone goes on vacation and then says they can't afford health insurance, that indicates, they just didn't prioritize health insurance. If they buy Starbucks coffee everyday and don't have health insurance, maybe they can afford it, they just chose not to. Walking around with your iPhone and $150/mo cell plan and no insurance, that isn't not affording coverage, it is making a choice to not buy it.

Food, shelter, and health should be things one pays for first and foremost and only after those things have been paid do you spend money on anything even remotely discretionary. When someone has eliminated everything short of the absolute necessities and still can't afford coverage, then they should be assisted with healthcare costs.

Jean Robart 5 years ago

Your attitude stinks. They said they couldn't afford it, not that a flat screen (or something similar) was more attractive. I can't afford insurance---I guess though, that my buying food and paying rent and utilities are priorities rather than getting health insurance. The best quote I received was over 25% of my income. That is reality. I prefer to have a roof over my head, and have electric to light and gas to heat my home, and food occasionally to bankrupting myself paying for health insurance.

Bryan Moore 5 years ago

What law prohibits them from joining with other small businesses to get insurance coverage? I thought Kansas had a Group Purchasing Arrangement. I don't think there is any federal law against it. What am I missing?

Dick Sengpiehl 5 years ago

You showed your real colors when you said "you people" early in your diatrobe Doesn't show much empathy. Actually a health care system which is employer based will never work. There are reasons why we don't have a single payer system now but it in the long run it will happen. There are very few people who do not like Medicare. Administrative costs for both Medicare and the VA are around 8% while private insurance companies hover around the 20% mark.

chootspa 5 years ago

When exactly is this driving up costs thing supposed to happen? The USA currently has the most expensive health care per capita in the world. I'm sure those single payer countries like England (NHS established 1946) will eventually cost so much more than us. Maybe in another 50 years?

homechanger 5 years ago

I have been self employed for 20 years. I have had a blue cross policy most of that time. I have 3 kids and a wife. We have a policy that costs less than 450.00 per month including dental. I chose my latest policy which has a 3000.00 deductible then goes to 80/20. After a total of 5000.00 out of pocket it goes to 100%. Each family member gets annual wellness visits and there is no lifetime cap on benefits. I made it a priority to carry insurance this whole time. We have been fortunate to have very few claims but its there if we need it. It is affordable because we made it affordable.

homechanger 5 years ago

Wrong. Mike. Hyperbole is not necessary. As long as I'm paying my premiums I cannot be dumped. Do you have health insurance? Never heard of your example. Blue cross is an excellent insurance provider. My contract with them is very clear.

homechanger 5 years ago

No. You sound like you do not have health insurance. Maybe YOU should look into it. Facts are great.

hedshrinker 5 years ago

homechanger, I'm glad you've had great experience, but you admit you've had few claims; there have been MANY documented cases of people having surgery/cancer treatment etc. only to find their well-known big insurance companies denies the claims resulting in people being unable to pay out of pocket for services already rendered and having ultimately to file bankruptcy, OR having potentially life-saving services denied outright resulting in poor quality of life and even death, OR having the insurance cancelled outright and then being unable to ever buy insurance again b/c of pre-existing conditions. Some of these things will hopefully be addressed when ACA goes into full effect next year, but the reason many people don't support ACA is that it does nothing to address the stranglehold the health insurance industry has over ALL healthcare delivery AND does little to nothing to address the ever-escalating COSTS of services. Then there's the problem of most quality insurance being tied to peoples' workplace or to young adults getting independent quality insurance BEFORE they have ANY pre-existing conditions and NEVER letting go of that policy. There is lots of information available so you don't just extrapolate from your isolated experience. I have worked in healthcare for 35 years and have lived with my own cadillac plans when employed by big systems and have lived with lousy expensive high-risk plans that basically meant no coverage for routine care for several years; have been a provider filing insurance claims for my patients for 30 years with DOZENS, probably hundreds of plans with a maze of differing restrictions that constantly change; compared to other developed countries with national health care or single payor, our US system delivers much poorer health outcomes at a much higher pricetag. Again, I'm happy your family has good coverage, but don't demean others' lived experience...your experience is NOT typical.

Trumbull 5 years ago

My prayers will go for her recovery and hope that the surgery will make her cancer free.

Regarding insurance, I hear of stories that if you don't have it through your employer, insurance costs can be more expensive than your mortgage (if you have a family). Last year I was temporarily unemplyed and was paying $650 a month thru cobra (I am single).

In my opinion we should go single payer or at minimum a Public Option. A public option plan would be affordable considering the number of people who are not insured with there employer plan. And I am not sure why we have expected our employers to provide health insurance. This is a drain on business resources and put pressure on them. We should free business of this burden ao that we can be more competitive, Insurance costs are one reason why we see jobs being outsourced. I would rather see the government assume the role of health care providance.

Beyond that, there is a problem of skyrocketing costs. I firmly believe that it would be best to provide more basic care. We don't necessarily need a billion dollar MRI machine when an x-ray will do just fine. This is why a broken arm may run you 25 grand these days. We are turning quality medical care into rocket science in my opinion.

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