health insurance

Beware of falling fire extinguishers

On Wednesday morning, my biggest concern was the weather. There was a messy snow-sleet-freezing rain event predicted for that afternoon, which would be just about the worst when I was due to travel to Niantic for an emergency probate hearing.

Little did I know the precipitation would not be the most significant object falling from the sky. Instead of watching the weather reports, I should have been watching out for falling fire extinguishers.

It was already an unexpectedly hectic morning, since I forgot my pump parts at home and had to go there to pump during lunch. Then I went straight to the gas station to fill up before making my way out of town. I left myself over an hour to take a thirty-five minute trip, because I was anticipating a slick ride.

After filling up the car, I leaned into the driver’s seat to get my phone. I always took it with me to take a picture of my check after pumping gas, to keep a sort of “receipt” on hand. With my phone in hand and put my foot back on what I thought was the ground and instead stumbled backwards off the edge of the raised area of cement around the pump kiosk.

While clearly *not* gracefully falling backwards into the cramped, filthy space between the pump and the steel post beside it, I somehow either hit or instinctively grabbed at the massive fire extinguisher hanging in a bright red encasement on the steel post. The red plastic broke, and just after my butt hit the ground, a deep and heavy “clang” hit my head.

I thought the roof was caving in, but I soon realized the fire extinguisher – ever at the ready to aid in an inferno emergency – had eagerly lunged from it’s post and came crashing down on my skull during it’s very brief escape,  which quickly ended with a slight roll and then a halt in the parking lot behind me.

It is difficult to explain the sound of a fire extinguisher hitting your own head, but imagine the sound of a mostly empty 55-gallon steel oil drum hitting a concrete floor. Very close to that. And shockingly loud.

After conducting an assessment of life’s basic functions, and suddenly realizing no one was asking me if I was okay, I looked around to see no one was there. All the cars around me were abandoned, and I was in odd position of deciding what to do next. Cry? Try not to, dear. Yell? I think I can get up. Call Massimo? Not now.

Let me try getting up.

I did, and after a brief near-breakdown leaning over my front seat, I made my way inside, if for no other reason than to inform the clerk she should pick up the fire extinguisher before someone hits it with their car.

I did not exactly know what to say when I got inside. I was upset, dirty, and beginning to shake from the adrenaline. I opened my mouth. “I don’t… I’m not sure how to put this…. The fire extinguisher fell on my head.”

The staff took a moment to register what I said, and then rushed to give me a seat and I asked for ice for my head. They gave me water, which helped me stop shaking.

After a while the pain came, but I realized this was not nearly as bad as it could have been. I had no blood. Did not lose consciousness. I wasn’t feeling concussed. And other than the facts that I had left myself ample time to get to court and now I would be late, and my black pants and coat were filthy, I was mostly absolutely fine.

Banged up, but fine.

My co-worker drove me to court because at that point I was concerned my condition could change and I would rather not be behind the wheel when that happened. Everyone continued to ask and question, and practically force me to go to the hospital to get checked out but by the next morning, the only evidence of the accident was the bruise on my thigh. My head was completely painless.

Other than being extremely happy and thankful I did not get seriously – or even minorly – injured in this odd episode, the other strange experience to come from the falling fire extinguisher is that it was the first time I got hurt as an attorney. And people are weird about attorneys getting hurt.

Most assume attorneys are litigious folks – who can and will sue at the drop of a hat, and drag it out, for that matter, and make your life miserable! But, in my experience, most attorneys are the opposite. Maybe it’s something about how doctors make the worst patients, and caregivers look out for themselves last: with all the litigation around me, the last thing I want to and have time to worry about is a lawsuit of my own!

Maybe it’s because I see the ugly side of litigation. I love my job, but it is hard, and litigation is hard and exhausting and long, and even if you win you never really “win.” All that to say, I know how difficult litigation can be, and even though I am a lawyer myself – or perhaps because I am a lawyer myself – I do not have any interest in being a party in a lawsuit.

I also know the reality. People threaten to sue all the time, in the heat of an argument, anticipating the sweet judgment they receive imminently will release their feelings and make the other party feel the weight of their wrong. But those are hot-headed feelings. They go away (or at least they should), and I know that litigation takes a long time. I know it takes trips to court. And letters. And decisions. And discovery. And phone calls. And meetings. And in the end, their insurance company pays out and lawyers take their bit and your insurance company takes what is their’s and you get what is left. And those feelings you started with are a distant memory. And the other party you were so eager to get to feel how wrong and evil and bad they were didn’t even pay anything.

Now, to be fair, in my case I would have had no choice but to demand compensation for my medical bills, because with my insurance plan, they could be tens of thousand of dollars out of pocket if I had a true injury. But I have no interest in going to doctors, getting tests, getting treatment, paying bills, and demanding compensation. I have no interest in suing anyone. I have no interest in stressing anyone out. I have no interest in getting hurt!

There is a time and a place to sue. There are strategic and necessary and justified reasons to go to court. There is a way to go through litigation with as little pain as possible. There is a reason for the judicial system and for my job, or else I would not be here!

But this, thankfully, was not one of those times. It was an accident. I am literally fine, and we can all move on with our lives.

– D. E. Barbi Bee


Letters Sent to My Congressional Representatives

The following represents the text of a letter I sent today to Senators Blumenthal and Murphy, as well as Representative Courtney. It remains to be seen if this idea gains any traction as a result of my contact, but if they do respond I will be sure to update.

Health care is a disaster, at least insurance is for my family. I have lost too much sleep over this crisis and there is too much wrong to fix in one letter. This is one small, but significant way to at least start and fix the mess the Affordable Care Act has made for my family.

Dear [Legislator]:

My name is Deborah Barbi. I live in your district with my husband, Massimiliano. I am twenty-six years old and work as an attorney, while my twenty-five year old husband works for a luthier. We have bought our health insurance through Access Health CT for several years, and have used advanced premium tax credits to help afford our high-deductible plans.

When I graduated from law school, I faced approximately $67,000.00 in government-subsidized student loans. My husband and I made a commitment to pay these back as quickly as possible, even though it would be a significant financial burden and would delay our being able to buy a house. We have made every payment, and then some, so far in our ten-year payback plan. We would have faced significant consequences if we did not make our payments, and we are glad we are aggressively repaying our debt.

Nevertheless, when I prepared to file our income taxes for 2016, we felt we were being punished by the tax code for paying our student loans while we save up for our home. We have been hit with a tax bill of over $3,000.00, nearly $2,000.00 of which is to repay advanced premium tax credits. The problem, for us, lies in the student loan interest deduction.

The student loan interest deduction is significantly different than the mortgage interest deduction in small but significant ways. And while I appreciate the tax code has recognized a benefit for those young working adults like me for paying off our debts, it would be much more impactful and more equitable if the deduction was treated just as the mortgage interest deduction.

There are two key differences between these deductions, which worked to create a monumental tax liability for my family this year. The student loan interest deduction is an above the line deduction, which tax payers can claim whether they itemize other deductions or not. While this sounds good in theory (especially compared to the mortgage interest deduction which must be itemized to be claimed) it does not compensate for the cap put on the benefit. While homeowners can claim every dollar they spent on their mortgage interest paid last year, students can only claim up to $2,500.00 in interest.

I paid nearly $7,000.00 in student loan interest last year. Again, that is money I was obligated to pay, and was willing to pay to get out of debt. It is money I no longer have, and yet the majority of it is still considered income I have lying around for health insurance premiums and taxes. For most young adults, the student loan payments function like a mortgage, and most of us have to choose between making those payments and buying a house. So why did I pay $4,500.00 in interest for which I received no tax benefit? The government gives great aid to both students and homeowners. The two debts – and consequently the two tax deductions – function almost the same in our society. If they are so similar, why have I been penalized for paying one, while I would be rewarded for paying the other?

The other way these two deductions should be identical but end up being drastically different is their role in calculating our family’s modified adjusted gross income. As you know, one’s MAGI determines whether one qualifies for Medicaid, and how much one may receive in tax credits to help pay for private insurance on the health care exchange. There are only a few deductions which help reduce one’s overall income to determine her MAGI; the mortgage interest deduction and student loan interest deduction are two such figures.

Once again, though, homeowners are at a significant advantage over students when it comes to affording health insurance. My MAGI would have been lowered by $4,500.00 last year if I was able to claim all of the student loan interest paid, rather than the arbitrary cap of $2,500.00. Significantly, I would be able to reduce my MAGI by every dollar I spent on mortgage interest, but not on my student loan interest. As a result, I have an artificially inflated MAGI, have had to pay back advanced premium tax credits, and may not qualify for HUSKY this year.

This year we are expecting our first child. Connecticut, thankfully, has a great Medicaid program for pregnant women. Unfortunately, I may not qualify for Husky A for pregnant woman because of just a few thousand dollars – a difference that would be eliminated if I were able to deduct all of the student loan interest I actually pay, rather than just the first third.

I know it is not a particularly glamorous of flashy issue; it is a minute, intellectual accounting difference that happens to have wide-spread and magnificent impacts on the life and health of my family.

If at all possible, please consider working to make the student loan interest deduction treated the same as the mortgage interest deduction. It would literally change our lives

Thank you for your time and I look forward to your efforts to help our family.


Deborah L. Barbi, Esq.