Mary Lou Retton’s shocking lack of insurance raises questions

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News broke Tuesday that Olympian champion gymnast Mary Lou Retton is in an ICU unit at a Texas hospital, “fighting for her life” with a rare form of pneumonia, sparking alarm among sports fans all over the United States. But fans were just as dismayed to learn from her daughters that Retton, a highly decorated public figure who supposedly earned millions from endorsement deals over the years, has no health insurance.

Because of this lack of health insurance, the oldest of Retton’s four daughters said the family had had to start a crowdfunding campaign to help cover the hospital bill. As of Wednesday morning, the Spotfund campaign for Retton, a star gold medalist at the 1984 Olympics, had blown well past its original goal of $50,000, exceeding $250,000 and growing.

“My amazing mom, Mary Lou, has a very rare form of pneumonia and is fighting for her life,” Retton’s daughter McKenna Kelley wrote on Spotfund. Kelley also said her mother is not able to breathe on her own and had been in the ICU for more than a week.

“Out of respect for her and her privacy, I will not disclose all details,” Kelley said. “However, I will disclose that she not insured.”

Among people on social media, the idea that Retton’s family needs to ask strangers to pay for what’s expected to be an enormous hospital bill has incited a range of questions and reactions. At the top of the list: Why doesn’t Retton have insurance? And, what kind of country is the United States if even a legendary sports figure like Retton can’t pay for an emergency hospital stay?

Thus far, Retton’s daughters are not providing details “out of respect for her and her privacy.” The New York Times reported that Kelley, who was a gymnast at Louisiana State University, did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment on Tuesday. In an update Wednesday, Kelley wrote on Instagram that her mother remains in the intensive care unit, “continues to fight” and is “getting incredible medical care!”

With a dearth of information, the internet has been left to speculate on whether Retton, 55, chose to forego health insurance, or if she somehow lost coverage or wasn’t able to obtain coverage. People online also noted she had recently been living in a Houston mansion, citing a May 2022 report that she was selling her “luxury” 9,000-square-foot Houston home, which boasted six bedrooms, six bathrooms and a swimming pool.

In a thread on X, Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and health economist with a large social media following, agreed that the situation “doesn’t make sense.”

“I’m not sure if she’s still wealthy. Something must have happened. Or else they wouldn’t be crowdfunding for her medical bills,” Feigl-Ding said. He agreed with many others in saying, “It’s sad a former Olympic champion who is famous like this now has to beg and crowdfund for medical care. I’m not sure if she is still a millionaire like some claim — people’s situations can quickly change.”

Since Kelley started the Spotfund campaign, more than 4,300 people have donated varying amounts of money, from $10 to $50,000. Spotfund allows people to provide text messages along with their donations, and the site shows there has been an outpouring of support for Retton, with words of encouragement from thousands.

Forbes reported that crowdfunding for medical expenses has become a common occurrence in the 2020s, with many people turning to websites like GoFundMe and Spotfund to seek help in covering the costs of medical emergencies or even basic care.

A 2022 Kaiser Family Foundation study shows that roughly 10.2% of Americans under the age of 65 don’t have health insurance. The study said that the number of uninsured in the United States actually decreased by about 1.5 million people from 2019 to 2021, mainly due to policies adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic. The policies were designed to help low-income people gain and maintain coverage during the pandemic, and they included enhanced subsidies in the marketplace and the requirement that states maintain continuous enrollment for people on Medicaid, which provides insurance to low-income people.

Most of America’s uninsured are people in low-income families in which at least one family member is working, the study said. Generally, people of color are at higher risk of being uninsured. Some 64 percent of adults surveyed said they don’t get insurance because the cost of coverage is too high, even with policy efforts to make coverage more affordable.

Whatever is going on with Retton’s health insurance, she definitely has many pulling for her. In 1984, she became “America’s newest darling” by winning five medals at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, including a gold that made her the first American to win an Olympic individual all-round event, the Washington Post reported.

Her victories landed her a spot on the Wheaties cereal box and raised the popularity of gymnastics — a sport once dominated by Eastern Europeans — in the United States. She also campaigned for Ronald Reagan’s re-election in 1984, served as an adviser to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness during the George H.W. Bush administration and delivered the Pledge of Allegiance with fellow former gymnast and 1996 Olympic gold medalist Kerri Strug on the second night of the 2004 Republican National Convention.

Retton also has appeared on “Dancing With the Stars,” a Dairy Queen commercial and an advertisement for Colonial Penn Life Insurance Company, which the company uploaded to YouTube last week, the Washington Post said.

Sasha Farber, her partner on “Dancing With the Stars” in 2018, offered an update on Retton’s condition after Tuesday’s episode, telling Entertainment Tonight: “She’s fighting.” Farber also said he had been able to talk to her. “She kind of wants to give up, but I’m sending her videos of her dancing and I’m telling her, ‘There’s only one Mary Lou Retton. You’ve got this!’”

Just before Retton was eliminated from “Dancing With the Stars,” she revealed that she had split from Shannon Kelley, her husband of 27 years. The retired gymnast said the divorce had occurred months earlier. Kelley is a former football quarterback turned college coach, who last worked as an assistant coach at Houston Christian University.

“I’m on a really good path, and I’m happy with my life,” Retton told People at the time. “I’m really excited for what this new chapter is going to bring instead of being that scared person that I was a couple of months ago. I really have done a full turnaround.”

But as much as many people have been honoring Retton and fondly remembering her at the 1984 Olympics, her “America’s sweetheart” reputation isn’t universally observed. Some gymnastics fans point out that there’s an asterisk by her victory in the history books, given that the Soviet Union, then the most dominant force in women’s gymnastics, boycotted the Los Angeles games, as the New York Times reported.

More recently, Retton angered many in the women’s gymnastics community when she worked to counter a congressional bill, introduced by the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein, which was designed to protect young athletes from sexual predators, according to The Medal Count blog, which covers women’s gymnastics.

Feinstein introduced the bill after Larry Nassar, the longtime team doctor for the U.S. women’s gymnastics team, was charged in 2016 with sexually assaulting at least 265 young women and girls under the guise of medical treatment. His victims included a number of high-profile female gymnasts.

A year later, Retton joined officials from USA Gymnastics to unsuccessfully lobby Feinstein against passing the bill, also known as the Safe Sport Act, which would make it mandatory for national governing bodies of Olympics sports, such as USA Gymnastics, to report sexual assault to the police, the New York Times reported in 2017. Retton, “the smiling, bubbly sweetheart from the 1984 Games,” was brought along for PR purposes, the New York Times said, to let Feinstein know that the federation’s policies were solid and that gymnastics “was a happy, safe place.” Through bipartisan support, the bill eventually became law, signed by Donald Trump in 2018.

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