BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Wendy Matney hesitated to tell her family not to call 911.
"It seemed almost selfish to say, 'Please don't call because we can't afford this,' " said the 39-year-old home health aide, who has a form of epilepsy that causes frequent, sometimes violent, seizures.
Matney has been to the hospital enough, though, to know a trip means thousands of dollars in bills under the family's high-deductible health plan. And she and her husband -- struggling with more than $20,000 in medical debt -- can afford no more.
Hit with a hospital lawsuit over unpaid bills, the couple are declaring bankruptcy, effectively giving up hope of moving out of their trailer and buying a house.
"I'm losing everything because of this," Matney said.
The steep rise in health insurance deductibles over the last decade has saddled insured, middle- and working-class Americans with medical bills they can't afford, a Los Angeles Times examination of job-based insurance shows.
The biggest impact, however, has been on people like Matney who have illnesses such as diabetes, cancer and epilepsy that require regular medications and consistent care.
As drug prices have skyrocketed and deductibles in job-based coverage have more than tripled in the last 12 years, soaring to an annual average of $1,350, these sick Americans now routinely pay thousands of dollars every year to get care they need. That has made being sick in the U.S. dramatically more expensive.
"It's really a double whammy," said Dr. Brian Callaghan, a University of Michigan neurologist who has studied the impact on people with neurological illnesses.
The financial strain is pushing millions of seriously ill Americans to ration their care, jeopardizing their health and even their lives.