Cancer diagnosis brings clarity to one Trump voter

schafer and her dog

Don’t try to pigeonhole this Trump voter. Yes, cancer survivor Cynthia Shafer wants the Affordable Care Act repealed, but she wants wants it replaced with universal health care. (Bridge photo by John Russell)

HARBOR SPRINGS – The call came while she was on her way to Mexico for Thanksgiving 2016. Something had shown up on her mammogram. She needed to come see her doctor.

Five months later, Cynthia Shafer could be a Rorschach test for the nation’s health care debate.

Conservatives can look at the diminutive 57-year-old, curled up in an upholstered chair with her teacup Yorkie named Lady, and see a victim of Obamacare, forced to pay outrageous health insurance premiums for a high-deductible plan.

Progressives can look at the same woman and see a cancer survivor who might lose her insurance or pay even higher rates if the Affordable Care Act is repealed.

But health care isn’t an abstract political argument for Shafer. Yes, she voted for Trump. Yes, she’s lost some friends over it. A week seldom goes by without someone asking her with a smirk, “What do you think of your man Trump now?”

But to Shafer, health care is less about partisanship than pills and bills. High cholesterol pills.  High blood pressure pills. Prozac for depression. And a growing stack of bills for a lumpectomy and radiation treatments.

“I get bills from doctors I’ve never even seen,” Shafer said.

Shafer is among the 11 Michigan people and families Bridge Magazine is following throughout 2017 to try to understand – and pierce - the political bubbles in which they and many of us live.

RELATED: Part of the series “Michigan Divided”

She says doctors have told her they caught the cancer early and she will fully recover. Her health scare and her growing pile of bills give Shafer reason to be as partisan as anyone about the health care debate. But the Trump voter isn’t easily pigeon-holed into a left-right dichotomy, saying she both wants to blow up Obamacare and offer universal health care.

Cindy Schaffer putting on a Trump button.

Cynthia Shafer, 57, says she has lost some friends after voting for Donald Trump in November. (Bridge photo by John Russell)  

“No one is completely on the right or on the left,” she said. “We’re all kind of moderate on things. (But) nobody listens to anybody. There’s no empathy. No one wants to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. And the only people who are going to suffer are the children.”

‘God was watching out’

Shafer volunteers for several organizations in Harbor Springs. She’s an ardent environmentalist who, like many of her neighbors in Northern Michigan, rails against the aging Enbridge Line 5 pipeline that carries oil under the straits of Mackinac.

She laughs loud and often, admittedly not always at appropriate topics. That ability to laugh through good times and bad has come in handy over the years. She was an alcoholic, who kicked the addiction 11 years ago. She lost a six-figure job as a commercial insurance broker in Chicago when the economy tanked around 2010. She moved to Harbor Springs, where she has at times struggled to pay the mortgage with money earned managing the homes and affairs of busy friends.

Another financial hurdle looming in the future is her daughter’s potentially expensive wedding in September.

For a three-month stretch two years ago, Shafer opted not to be insured. “I just couldn’t afford it,” Shafer said. “It was insurance or the mortgage. I didn’t know if I’d be able to afford it again in a few months.”

As it turned out, she was able to sign up after just a few months, and was covered when her breast cancer was diagnosed.

“God was watching out for me because I got (insurance again) and then got (the cancer diagnosis). It was never my intent not to get it. But am I going to pay my mortgage or pay healthcare?”

Shafer is among the roughly 5 percent of Americans who buy health insurance on the open market, rather than getting insurance through their workplace, a government program such as Medicaid or Medicare, or through an ACA exchange. In most years, Shafer earns too much money to qualify for health insurance subsidies offered through the ACA.  

She’s paid as much as $900 a month for health insurance, though now her premium is around $550 a month for insurance she buys privately rather than through the ACA exchange. Shafer said it angers her that she pays so much for health insurance and still pay a $10,000 deductible before her insurance kicks in.

Shafer met with Bridge on a March day when the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives was planning to vote on repealing (and eventually replacing) the Affordable Care Act. Shafer wasn’t watching the news on the vote (which was postponed, then cancelled). She seldom watches or reads news, calling it a “black hole” and a “valley of despair.”

Still, she felt a personal connection to the debate. Her own health care costs (and lack of affordable healthcare options) is one reason Shafer said she voted for Trump last November. She doesn’t believe the Affordable Care Act has benefited her, though she also admitted she wasn’t sure how the ACA impacts the rates or coverage of her health insurance, a Blue Cross-Blue Shield plan she buys on the private market.

“How would I know if I’m on it (Obamacare)?” she asked.

But here’s the wrinkle with Shafer’s opinion on healthcare and healthcare politics. Here’s where she defies dogmatic stereotypes. The Trump voter said she believes in universal health care. She said she even respects Hillary Clinton for fighting for universal health care back in 1993 during her husband Bill Clinton’s first term in the White House.

Liberals “have their hearts in the right place,” Shafer said.

Shafer said she realizes that a repeal of Obamacare takes the nation farther from universal health care, but that she thinks the current law has too many problems to fix. “I have friends who rehab old homes,” she said. “They say it’s easier to rip them apart and start over.

“We waste so much money,” Shafer said. “They’ve got this (health care) so f----- up that I’d fire everyone and start over.”

schafer party

Cynthia Shafer sets the table for a party in February celebrating the inauguration of President Donald Trump. The party was postponed from Inauguration Day on Jan. 20 because of cancer treatments. (Bridge photo by John Russell)

Shafer said she doesn’t see much hope in her employment prospects improving in Harbor Springs. She acknowledges that, at her age and with her health history, she probably shouldn’t go without health insurance. She said she may have to return to Chicago to look for a job.

She’d miss most her fireplace, her books and her friends. But she doesn’t think anyone owes her anything. She’ll make it on her own, one way or another. She recalls the words of her favorite song, the theme song of “The Doris Day Show” she watched when she was a child.

Que Sera Sera,” was the song, Shafer said, whatever will be, will be.

It’s an attitude that has carried her through alcoholism and job loss and cancer, battles that make the current political skirmishes seem like waves on Zoll Street Beach, crashing in with a roar, then receding without leaving a lasting mark.

“I’m the luckiest person in the world to have had seven years here,” Shafer said. “It has been serene and tranquil. Not many people get this opportunity.”

And if she has to move back to Chicago to look for a job?

Shafer shrugged. “Que sera sera.”

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Tue, 04/18/2017 - 10:05am

I'm a Liberal with the same thinking. Heathcare costs are completely out of control and must be brought down to an affordable level. There is too little discussion about the Medical Industrial Complex. Universal health care similar to what's available in Canada would help most people while giving the wealthy the option of paying for the"Cadillac" care they feel entitled to.
Remember, Medicare covers only 80%. We pay about $5,000 a year for the other 20%, on a fixed income. Healthcare costs are extremely hard on the working poor and the elderly on fixed incomes.

Mary Fox
Tue, 04/18/2017 - 10:12am

I don't quite get the logic of paying a 10000 deductible to save 4800. But Trump voters are not always thinking mathmatically. I don't know how being for Universal health care and voting for Trump, gets you any closer. Someone explain it to me. It makes no sense to me.

Michigan Observer
Tue, 04/18/2017 - 9:49pm

The mathematically inclined Ms. Fox should consider the nature of insurance as opposed to prepaid medical care. Insurance is to protect you against fairly rare events that are catastrophic if they do occur. Like your house insurance; it protects you against a fire that destroys your house, but does not pay for expected expenses like a new roof. You are expected to pay for those out of your own resources. If you bought house insurance that covered routine maintenance, it would cost you a fortune. The same applies to health care.
If you save $4800 on insurance premiums every year and set it aside, you will soon have more than enough to pay the $10,000 deductible. And if you are young and lead a healthy lifestyle, the odds are that, over the long run, you will be ahead of the game.

Thomas Ford
Sun, 04/23/2017 - 12:02pm

And she says she is a staunch environmentalist. I would like to understand her logic on her Trump vote as far as that goes. I wonder is she suffers from buyers remorse on that decision after Trump's appointment of a climate change denier and EPA enemy to be in charge of that agency.

Gayle Groshko
Tue, 04/18/2017 - 10:52am

I have come to believe the time has come for single payer healthcare.

Robyn Tonkin
Tue, 04/18/2017 - 11:40am

I am glad that you included this lady in the group of voters being profiled, because I think she represents a large group of women in this country. I am a baby boomer and I have divorced sisters in law who are making it on their own, and it is not easy. The United States is still set up economically to be a nation of married couples and families--federal taxes and insurance rates, for instance, are all more affordable when "filing jointly".
I have comments about insurance. My husband of 42 years was both a federal US Forest Service forester and an Army Reserve officer. So, for my entire married life I have had a complex sets of rules and circumstances guiding my choice and use of health insurance. As a young civil service couple, we sat down during each "Open Season", and decided which of the dozens of federal health insurance plans available to us was best for us, that year. As an Army wife, I operate under the complex and strict rules of DEERS and Tricare. As a Category 1 veteran, with service connected disability, my husband is covered not only by Tricare for LIfe and Medicare, but by the VA. First and most importantly, the VA is a health care system, NOT insurance. Treat your VA eligibility as if it is health insurance coverage, and you are in for some big bills you pay yourself. I have explained the foregoing because I think going into the state exchanges and choosing health care insurance, and dealing with plans going in an out during Open Season, is difficult for many people. I think this woman's situation, where she has made too much money to get aid with health care points up one of the huge failings of the ACA. But remember, the ACA was a negotiated plan, and neither the president nor the backers of health care got everything they wanted. If I remember correctly, "Blue Dog Democrats" afraid of not being re-elected, really did some damage to the ACA.
I have a question. Why be all worried about the ageing Embridge pipeline, then vote for Donald Trump? Donald Trump has ushered in a group of anti-environmental cabinet heads who are intent on gutting the EPA. If you read the Circle of Blue Federal Water Tap, you get the FACTS on what has already been done to environmental safeguards, particularly water related issues, not someone's opinion. I too don't dwell onTrump's treatment of women, it is what you would expect from somebody like him. But you can't parse people's behavior. You have to see that Trump has no use for environmental safeguards, or for getting along with other nations. He's not going to be drinking the dirty water, and his kids or sons in law aren't going to be manning a battery on the DMZ in Korea. He can identify problems in the US, but then his restless brain moves on. He's not going to solve the problems, he's just going to note they're there, as he feathers the nests of the robber barons.
Oh, and anybody who lost their job in the aftermath of the financial crisis really shouldn't blame it on Obama--blame gutless George Bush and clueless Henry Paulsen. They're the authors of all that misery.

Ann Farnell
Tue, 04/18/2017 - 3:31pm

Couldn't agree more with your well thought out comment. It really bothers me that the electorate has at its immediate proximity many ways to seek and sort out information in order to make an informed decision but chooses to not bother and then explains their lazy vote in a confused and frustrated way. This has delivered us the least competent president of modern history who sold himself as exactly the opposite of what he actually stands for. His history was very available if one took the time to look it up.

Tue, 04/18/2017 - 3:29pm

When it's freezing cold you don't burn down your house to make way for new home construction.

Thomas Ford
Sun, 04/23/2017 - 12:19pm

That's right. You don't repeal without a replacement in place otherwise people will be without coverage for an undetermined length of time. Replace then repeal. Think, if they had repealed the ACA before their last attempt at health insurance reform and what a disaster that would have been.

Tom Ford

Chris A
Tue, 04/18/2017 - 4:52pm

Where does one begin with people like this? They vote against their best economic interest time after time after time. As long as no trouble befalls them they are ahead of the curve. But that time of trouble always comes. The old Aesop Fable of the grasshopper and the ant bears more and more truth as time moves on. The most common reason for bankruptcy before the ACA was medical expenses. And who pays for that? Those of us who are insured and have taken sound financial and insurance matters. People complain,"You can't make me buy (medical) insurance." This insurance benefits the insured but the rest of society by eliminating pro bono work which is ultimately charged to those with insurance and then we have higher premiums. The State of Michigan forces all who own a car to purchase auto insurance in order to drive on the roads of Michigan. I guess as they say, "You can't fix stupid." When will this insanity end that is focused on short term me, Me, ME and start to focus on what is best for society as a whole? WE. The ACA has consequences that benefits all of society. Not just the insured individual.

Sun, 04/23/2017 - 12:32pm

That's why HR 676, Medicare for All has been the right choice for a number of years. There are a few things that make it the way to go. 1. It spreads the risk over out everyone. 2. It is affordable. 3. the infrastructure is already there. 4. It gets health insurance companies and their exorbitant CEO compensation packages (some equaling over $15,000. a day) out of the health care business. Can someone tell me exactly what health insurance companies do other than collect cash, pay and deny claims. They are definitely a middleman we can do without.

Ann Farnell
Tue, 04/18/2017 - 6:05pm

It was slow reading, but I got through thousands of pages of the ACA, which, by the way, does not apply to me. I have Medicare. I do not think it will be repealed because it is funding new medical schools around the country, WMU and CMU, in Mi., as well as scholarships for science and medical services jobs. It has also put the emphasis on patient centered medicine, and required more doctor and hospital accountability, You have probably noticed that there are fewer independent doctors, more hospital and clinic associated doctors. Like it or not that is a function of ACA. In other words, it overhauled the delivery of medical services, but the structure for single payer or Medicare is there. It is political choice; largely because of big insurance and big pharma's political clout, particularly but not exclusively with the GOP, that steps toward single payer has become rhetoric largely to raise money. The ACA is a shell game in the hands of those politician going on about repealing it.

Wed, 04/19/2017 - 1:05pm

When has giving something away for free ended up giving greater innovation, higher quality, better customer service and lead to lower overall costs? And secondly never expect that anything will give the same results when switched from one culture to another, the US isn't Canada, by long shot!

Sun, 04/23/2017 - 9:54am

Where in the article is there anything about "giving something away for free"? Are you referring to universal health care? Of course it's not "free." It aggregates taxes to pay directly for medical care instead of shoveling billions to middlemen insurance companies, bloated CEO compensation packages and all the administrative costs necessary to manage an utterly inefficient system. You pay for that now. Are you happy with that? Every other developed country on Earth has single payer. Our system costs vastly more, and yet our life expectancy and several other medical outcomes are worse. Nobody is asking for anything free. We're asking that what we pay goes to a system devoted to our health, not profits for some insurance company. And the government builds incentives into single payer plans that do indeed reward innovation and outcomes. I'll take that over a system that incentivizes shareholder gains, outrageous pharmaceutical costs and medical bankruptcy any day.

Thomas Ford
Sun, 04/23/2017 - 12:37pm

Health care is not free and never will be. We are all paying for it in one way or another. Medicare for All is the most affordable and equitable solution out there.

David W.
Sun, 04/23/2017 - 8:18am

It is people like Cynthia S. that I cannot understand. They vote for an individual who stands in opposition to what they value and yet, think he is the answer and will correct their problems. What has Trump done that makes anyone think he will support a universal health care system? What has Trump done that makes anyone believe he cares about the environment and will work toward protection of the same? Trump talks about jobs yet he purchases the majority of his manufactured goods overseas.

I see people like Cynthia planting corn seeds and expect daisies to come up!

Jim Bauer
Sun, 04/23/2017 - 8:26am

Divided we will get no where; united we could solve this and any problem. The political system sucks and is the problem Lack of love and caring for others and self has been destroyed.

William C. Plumpe
Sun, 04/23/2017 - 10:32am

Sorry to be so frank but serves you right.
You have to be careful what you ask for because you might get it and it might not at all be what you thought it would be. But you can't change it for about four years.
Voting for President is serious business and as you can see may have very negative effects. You simply can't let your gut take control when you are making life changing decisions. Think what would happen if your heart surgeon made decisions based on anger? You'd probably be dead on the operating table. That's not the same as following a hunch. You traded certainty and long term stability for "feel good" short term gain. And I am not advising you should have voted for Clinton. You wanted an "outsider" and businessman and so now don't complain if Trump messes things up for you too. I voted for Kasich the moderate in the Michigan primary even though I'm a long time progressive Democrat because I wanted somebody like my political hero Gerald Ford in the White House---not flashy or arrogant but a good manager who was quiet but got things done. But unfortunately Kasich didn't win. I didn't like Clinton a great deal but for me she was the better choice than the unpredictable and uncertain Trump. For me Trump was just too big a risk for not enough real gain. Taking too big a chance.

Anne Lechartier
Sun, 04/23/2017 - 11:18am

Of course, under Trump she is more likely to get an Obamacare replacement that does not require insurers to insure those with pre-existing conditions.
-another cancer survivor