Health Care Act

The SC ‘blind’ guy: Anatomy of a viral health care story

Luis Lang of Fort Mill, S.C., has raised more than $25,000 for his sight-saving surgery through crowd-funding and now says he wants to switch from Republican to Democrat.
Luis Lang of Fort Mill, S.C., has raised more than $25,000 for his sight-saving surgery through crowd-funding and now says he wants to switch from Republican to Democrat. ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

I marked 34 years in newspaper journalism this month, and I’ve never had a story grab public interest the way my recent post on Luis Lang did.

The account of the uninsured Fort Mill, S.C., Republican seeking someone to pay for his sight-saving surgery pushed people’s buttons across the country. Even as he raised more than $25,000 from donors, readers lined up to scold him for seeking aid while living in a $300,000 home. People couldn’t wait to give him a virtual earful about smoking, neglecting the diabetes that put him at risk for blindness and blaming Obamacare for the Medicaid gap created by South Carolina lawmakers.

The story was viewed more than 146,000 times on our site, drawing more than 2,000 comments. It was shared on social media more than 38,000 times and inspired numerous national blog posts and commentaries, ranging from a syndicated column by Leonard Pitts to a mention on Bill Maher’s HBO talk show.

For the last couple of weeks, everyone I’ve run into wants to talk about Lang. Here are answers to some of the questions people have asked:

Q. How did you find this guy?

A. Lang called me after trying to interest local TV stations in his story. He called it an Affordable Care Act outrage.

I’ve been covering the ACA for almost a year now. I quickly realized Lang, like many people I’ve talked to, had a poor grasp of how it works. But the “Medicaid gap” that means people can’t get subsidies if their income drops too low is a very real challenge for more than half a million people in North and South Carolina, and he was one of them.

Q. Why did you write about him?

A. My first impulse was not to. His situation was just too messy.

Ultimately I decided the messiness was the story. Textbook cases and theoretical models are fine, but health care plays out in the complicated and contradictory theater of human nature.

Dr. Malcolm Edwards, an ophthalmologist who has seen Lang several times, assured me his diagnosis was dire and his struggles to find funding real. His office helps patients find charities that might help with medical costs. But it’s easier to find a sponsor for something like cataract removal, a relatively simple procedure, than for the expensive and ongoing care Lang would need, he said.

Edwards also said it’s not uncommon to find patients who neglect their diabetes until it causes major problems, nor to see people living what appears to be a comfortable suburban lifestyle who can’t cover major medical costs.

I spoke with the S.C. Department of Health and Human Services and a neighbor of Lang’s who is a fellow journalist to verify as much of his story as I could. We ran a civil and criminal background check to make sure there were no red flags for fraud.

Over several phone conversations and a visit to Lang’s house, I told Lang I wouldn’t write a “plea for help” story but would explore all the questions his situation posed. I warned him that would include reporting on decisions he had made that were likely to expose him to criticism.

Q. Why doesn’t Lang’s wife get a job? Why don’t they sell their house, take out an equity loan or otherwise tap their own assets to pay for the surgery?

A. Lang, who is 49, says his 55-year-old wife has a medical condition and can’t drive, so she isn’t likely to get work.

Although he acknowledges he has a nice house, he says he’s struggling to pay the mortgage and his other expenses. Court records show the bank started foreclosure in 2011 but dismissed the action. The subdivision homeowner’s association took him to court last year.

Lang says he had a stake in a chicken-wing restaurant that closed three years ago. His truck was recently repossessed, he says, and he borrowed money from a neighbor to get it back.

Edwards says when Lang first came to him two years ago, before his diabetic retinopathy had gotten so severe, his office got a copy of his bills and income reports, as it does for all patients seeking discounted care. Just a few months earlier, Edwards said, Lang had spent thousands of dollars on vet bills for his cats. (Lang, who signed a release for Edwards to talk about his case, told me he and his wife consider their cats their children.)

Edwards says he, too, has been peppered with questions and comments about Lang. There’s always an element of an honor system, he says, and “he lives in a nicer house than I do.” But Edwards says he believes Lang genuinely lacks the money to cover his treatment, even if his own decisions have created that hardship.

Ultimately, it will be up to the medical providers Lang works with to figure out how much he’ll be expected to pay.

Q. How is Lang reacting to this?

A. We’ve spoken several times since the first post, and his reactions keep changing. A few days after the story he was disappointed that Republicans and conservatives hadn’t rallied to his defense and given to his cause. Now he has decided he’s really more of a Democrat. He wants to go on live TV to tear up his voter registration card and become a “poster boy for the Affordable Care Act.”

He’s angry with a Charlotte eye surgeon who told me shortly after the first post that the $8,500 he had raised at that time should be enough to cover the surgery. Lang went for a consultation with that doctor last week and said he could not get a firm cost estimate without more testing (the surgeon told me the same thing). Lang decided he’d rather see someone else and has made an appointment with a Pineville surgeon recommended by Edwards.

Lang is also mad at me for running the surgeon’s comment about having enough money, which led people to chastise him for continuing to take donations. He says his ongoing eye care and a need to get his kidneys checked will actually cost more than the $30,000 target he set on GoFundMe and noted that he won’t get all the money donated (the site charges 7.9 percent plus 30 cents per donation in fees). Lang says he may raise the goal, and he’s now asking his GoFundMe supporters to call MSNBC and ABC to demand that those stations put him on air.

Q. Did you anticipate the reaction?

A. I thought the story would spark a lot of interest and discussion. I didn’t expect a social media campaign to drum up donations from people who didn’t like Lang’s political views and personal actions. Charity usually flows to sympathetic figures. Lang seems to have gone viral because people wanted to set him straight.

Q. Are you going to raise money for people who need it more?

A. One of the great things about being a journalist is the power to connect people who need help with people who want to give it.

One of the harsh realities is that a newspaper can’t fill the role of a service agency, a charity or a health care system.

Countless good people are fighting cancer, diabetes and other deadly and disabling conditions. Thousands of families – in the suburbs and the city, in small apartments and spacious homes – face devastating medical bills. Some have insurance with high deductibles. Others fall through gaping cracks in a system marked by partisan strife.

If their best hope is to roll the dice on crowd-funding and viral journalism, most will lose.

I’ll be happy if my writing helps Lang avoid blindness.

I’ll be happier if it moves us even a step closer to working together so we don’t have to argue over who deserves to go blind.

Helms: 704-358-5033;

Twitter: @anndosshelms. This blog post is done in collaboration with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Lang on WFAE

Updated May 27: Luis Lang, Dr. Malcolm Edwards and Affordable Care Act expert Madison Hardee will be on Charlotte Talks, WFAE 90.7 FM, from 9 to 10 a.m. Friday, May 29.

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