By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
ASPEN – To understand the insanity in Aspen, you first must know that a two-story house in the trailer park goes for $1.5 million. Got that? The trailer park.
At Aspen High, a public school, a sports booster donated an NFL-quality multimillion dollar football field.
And the ice arena at the town’s recreation center? Only Olympic quality would do. A donor purchased the ice from the Vancouver Olympics and paid to have it brought to Aspen.
You’ve no doubt heard about the $45 million-dollar record-smashing home sales, the chichi Caribou Club, the Learjets, the de rigueur fur ensembles and the Gucci, Prada and Fendi boutiques.
What you may not have heard is what it’s like to come to Aspen with big dreams and a big salary, then lose your job and your health insurance right before experiencing unexpected health problems that leave you in a deep, dark, expensive hole.
Imagine sheepishly trying to keep your head down so you won’t embarrass your children as you pick up donated Christmas presents at their school.
Cherie Storm, 40, wipes a tear from her cheek in her rented home as she describes the shame and struggles of trying to survive unemployment and health ordeals in Aspen.
“There’s no reality here,” she said. “This is trust-fund heaven.”
The Storms’ saga began in 2006. Natives of North Carolina, she and her husband owned their own home along the Outer Banks. She was working on her master’s in architecture when an unbelievable job offer arrived.
An Aspen architecture firm lured her to town with an $89,000 per year job designing home interiors. The benefits were amazing: health care, a housing subsidy, a commuters’ allowance, even ski passes for her family.
Storm doesn’t ski and doesn’t like winter. Nonetheless, she dragged her husband, a carpenter, and three children across the country.
All was well until the recession hit and Aspen’s monstrous housing bubble burst.
Aspen health experts say many residents live one step away from disaster.
“Families can be fine. Then we see an illness or a loss of one income in a two-income family. And that catapults them into chaos,’’ said Mitzi Ledingham, deputy director of Pitkin County’s Health and Human Services Administration.
In August of 2009, Cherie Storm’s firm laid off 53 of 65 employees, including her.
The couple cut expenses and started paying cash for medical care. For a while, they were able to stay afloat on Bill Storm’s carpentry income. But then, Bill, 43, began having severe pain and blood in his urine. Doctors told him he’d need surgery for a kidney stone, but the Storms couldn’t afford it. They tried to negotiate on the price but the only urologist in the Aspen area told them he could trim the tab only if they paid cash.
For months, Bill lived with the pain until October of last year when it became so bad that he couldn’t walk and therefore could not work.
Throughout her husband’s illness, Cherie fought to control costs. Doctors insisted that Bill needed expensive CAT scans. Cherie protested.
“I said ‘no.’ You don’t kill a mosquito with a nuclear bomb.”
But doctors played the cancer card.
“They scared us,’’ she said. “I fought them until Bill couldn’t walk.”
The couple found the CAT scan would be $800 more expensive in Aspen than Glenwood Springs, so they drove there and had to pay $4,000. Then, because Bill had to have the surgery, they had to pay $8,500 to have his kidney stones blasted with a laser. The cash cost would have been $3,500. But the Storms had no cash. On top of the doctor’s fees, they owed hospital bills too.
Bill’s recovery was anything but easy. His pain continued as his body passed the remnants of the stones. He lost more work.
The Storms now owe about $60,000 to hospitals and doctors.
“I juggle like a circus clown when it comes to paying bills,” Cherie Storm said.
With help from Aspen’s health department, they applied and qualified for Medicaid and CHP+ for the children. They tried to get help from Aspen’s affordable housing program, but Cherie was told she would only qualify if she divorced or separated from Bill.
“You’re all crazy,’’ she thought to herself. “Anytime you try to do the right thing and don’t lie, you get screwed.”
So why not leave Aspen?
Simple, explains Bill Storm.
“The high school (back in North Carolina) has metal detectors.”
The Storms both think Aspen can be a paradise – although a pricey one – for children.
“The education is comparable to a private school,” Cherie said. “Ultimately this has to be the best place to raise kids.”
The town offers amazing recreational and educational opportunities. In middle school, for instance, seventh graders can opt to take a summer trip to the French Alps, Japan or Venezuela.
If your family can afford the trip, that is.
For now, the Storms barely cover expenses. They had to think twice about paying school football fees for their boys or allowing their daughter to take ice-skating lessons. Both are trying to score design and construction jobs and keep their fingers crossed that Medicaid will retroactively cover some of their medical expenses.
They asked not to be photographed because they worried that a potential client might see them and think they weren’t good enough for Aspen.
“You don’t want anybody to know that you can’t take care of your bills,” Cherie Storm said. “Then you become the poor family.”