Insurance woes killed business, but chef is hopeful

Sometimes a financial crisis doesn't begin on Wall Street. It begins in the doctor's office. KPCC's Special Correspondent Kitty Felde spoke with one Southland entrepreneur who won't let cancer bankrupt his future.

Kitty Felde: Vernell Harris is a 50-something year old chef. He had a restaurant in northern California that specialized in Afro-Italian cuisine.

Vernell Harris: And then I got sick. I couldn't swallow. I mean – and I was sick for a year, I just didn't feel right. And so I went to my oncologist one time and I said, "Hey, man. I just can't swallow."

And they did an MRI and found I had a cancerous thyroid with a tumor growing down my throat. And I was in surgery the next morning. And I had my own insurance, which I was paying out of my pocket.

First, it started off like it was Blue Cross. It was like $75 for three months, and once they found out I was sick, it went from 75 to 150 within – I was really going to the doctor a lot – and then at 250, 550, and then when I was diagnosed with cancer, it was like $800 for three months. And they knew I couldn't pay it, so man, that's when I had to get on state assistance.

And that's when I had my surgery and all my chemo and stuff. Once you get sick, you can never catch back up. It's like you're one paycheck away from being unemployed or being on the street.

And that's the way it is. Especially small businesses. And it was me and my business partner. We just – and she couldn't do it by herself. She wasn't a chef. And so I lost it.

Felde: You're trying to start a new business now.

Harris: Yes. V Spot Catering. I used to do this in Marysville, too. I used to go to people's houses and cook. I think this is going to take off because people don't like going out as much as they did anymore. And this is like having a homecooked meal in their home.

And you have – your professional chef will come in and serve you, buy the wine, conversation, and we clean up. And everybody loves that. I mean, I think people like their dishes done more than the food. I mean, we can start like this and then – because this way, you don't need a building.

Felde: Some people might say this is a lousy time to try to start a new business.

Harris: Yes. Oh, no, it's crazy. But I gotta do it. I mean, you gotta try. You fall off the horse, you gotta get right back on it. You gotta keep going.

Felde: Now, look in your crystal ball. I mean, tell me. What do you see in the future for yourself and the country? I mean, is there a link between those two?

Harris: People like us, the grassroots, I mean, we're gonna bring America back. We have to. We're the best workers in the world. Like I said. We're Americans. I mean, everybody still wants to come here.

I mean, everybody still idolizes America. I don't care what anybody says. This is the country to come to. Everybody has an upswing and then a downswing. I mean, we had the depression. We had a recession. It's just one of those things. Like everybody goes through it.

It's like a prize fighter. I mean, he's undefeated, he'll get beat, but it's not going to keep him down. You gotta keep going. And like a shark, if you stop swimming, you'll die. And you won't be able to eat, either.

So, yeah, you gotta keep moving. But America is going to come back. I don't care how bad or bleak it looks. We have too many people who are going to pull together. And we're gonna make it. No matter what.

Felde: Vernell Harris is working a second job at a local fish store. And while he's staying healthy, swimming five days a week, he still doesn't have health insurance. He's trying to qualify for Medi-Cal.