Unemployment's pressing fallout: Health care

by Lesley Politi on November 14, 2008

Unemployment’s pressing fallout: Health care

To no one’s great surprise, the nation’s unemployment rate shot up to 6.5 percent last month, with the loss of another 240,000 jobs. Because the United States primarily relies on employers to provide health insurance coverage, behind this statistic is an alarming fact: An overwhelming majority of the 10.1 million jobless Americans and their children are also now uninsured.

While the loss of one’s health insurance is a subset of the more immediate problem of unemployment, it can be just as devastating to a family’s financial security. The average payment for COBRA – the federal legislation that allows employees to continue group health coverage for up to 18 months after losing a job – hovers at $1,200 a month for family coverage. That’s well out of the reach of the majority of the unemployed or, for that matter, the employed.

In New York, uninsured individuals and families may be eligible for public insurance programs that, depending on income and family size, are either free or low-cost. In addition to Medicaid, there’s Family Health Plus, which is an extension of the Medicaid program for adults age 19 and older. Adults in a family of four making up to $31,000 may qualify. And there’s Child Health Plus, for children up to age 18. A family of four making up to $84,000 may qualify for Child Health Plus at a subsidized rate. The New York State Health Department reported a 30 percent increase just in Medicaid applications in the first four months of this year, long before the Wall Street meltdown. Department staffers say they are preparing for an even greater surge in applications now.

Nevertheless, though the demand for these programs is growing and the need for funding is increasing, Gov. David A. Paterson and the State Legislature are threatening to make cuts. In his news conference yesterday, Paterson proposed halving the growth of Medicaid spending, from 2 percent to 1 percent.

New York’s legislators return to Albany on Tuesday with the expressed intent of trimming about $2 billion in spending from the state’s current budget. They may be quick to redline these insurance programs, but their haste will have devastating consequences.

One major illness to a family member who is uninsured could quickly wipe out that family’s savings, impede their ability to remain in their home, and saddle them with insurmountable debt for the rest of their lives. Some 27 percent of personal bankruptcies in this country are directly related to medical debt.

Fifteen percent of Long Island‘s population is already uninsured, but that doesn’t mean those families don’t get sick or injured. Instead, they turn to their local hospitals for care, resulting in longer waits in the emergency room and higher costs. A typical ER visit costs about $400, for instance, and Medicaid reimburses $95. This is detrimental to everyone, especially those lucky enough to have health insurance, as increased costs are passed on to consumers in higher premiums.

The faces of the uninsured are increasingly our neighbors, relatives, and friends who have lost their jobs and the health insurance those jobs provided. These are the same individuals who, throughout their working lives, have contributed to the sustenance of public insurance programs. The public-health safety net of Family Health Plus, Child Health Plus and Medicaid should be there for them now.

Our state legislators face an important task next week. The state’s budget is facing gaping deficits. But they must remember that their actions will determine the fate of thousands of Long Islanders and their families. They need to choose the path of health and stability for themselves and their constituents, and commit to fully funding the Medicaid program and its related programs, Child Health Plus and Family Health Plus.


Source: www.newsday.com

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