No job meant no insurance. No insurance meant no operation. To qualify for public assistance, she actually had to become poor again.
"I had to spend all my money in order to be able to get that help from the county," she said.
Eventually, she qualified for Medicare and got a kidney transplant.
Another problem is that not everybody with a job has insurance. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than two-thirds of the uninsured actually work. For those who can't afford insurance, but earn too much for public assistance, the consequences can be severe.
"These people … delay seeking treatment for minor problems until they become major problems," Kitzhaber said. "And so it's a significant contributor both to the cost of the system and to the troubling health statistics of our population."
But even those who can pay face risks, like medical mistakes. An estimated 100,000 Americans die annually from medical errors -- twice as many as in car crashes, according to the Institute of Medicine.
In Indianapolis last month, tiny Thursday Dawn Jeffries and two other premature babies died after accidentally being given 1,000 times the prescribed dosage of a blood thinner.
"I think it was wrong," said her mother, Heather Jeffries. "My baby was fine before they gave her the Heparin."
It is not just patients. Doctors also say the system is broken. In some parts of the country, it's hard to even find someone to deliver a baby because it's considered a high risk specialty. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, one in seven ob-gyn's in the United States has stopped delivering babies because of the cost of malpractice insurance.
In northern New Jersey, Dr. Ruth Schulze has delivered close to 3,000 babies. Last year, she stopped because the cost of malpractice insurance was so high and the money insurance companies paid for each delivery was so low.
"It became a harsh reality of economics," she said. "In private practice medicine, you still need to run a small business. And unfortunately, the price of business was going up and the reimbursement level was going down. … And the penalties associated with practicing got to be great enough that as much as we love it, it was a very logical but painful decision to stop."
But it hasn't been easy to make the adjustment.
"There's a lot of sadness in the fact that we're giving up something that we truly love doing, that we feel we actually deliver in a quality fashion," she said. "There is nothing in the world like delivering a baby."
In the end, all the expense and all the cracks in the system may take their toll, some say.
"If spending money on healthcare made people healthy, we'd be the healthiest nation in the world," Kitzhaber said. "And the fact is that our health statistics are abysmal compared to some of the other countries that we compete with."
ABC News' Lenny Bourin and Dan Harris contributed to this report.