Workers run to get medical treatments before they lose health insurance

by Lesley Politi on May 7, 2009

Its bad enough to lose your job, then losing your Health Insurance as well. With the price of COBRA too many people are going without. Hopefully Health Insurance premiums will go down and people can look into Individual Health Plans as an alternative to their Group Health Coverage.


The Press-Enterprise


Millions of Americans go to work each week knowing their medical costs are covered, at least in part, in the event of a major illness. But many of them also fear that their jobs could be gone in a month and their health insurance shortly after that.

That insecurity has made thousands of Inland Southern California workers and family members worried about their long-term health. Some medical offices in the region are reporting waits way longer than usual for appointments.

But the effect of massive layoffs today — the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 5.1 million jobs have been lost in the past 16 months — might go beyond a one-month wait for a checkup at your local internist’s office. New dynamics in health insurance could affect the economic conditions for providers and insurance plans as well, some experts in the field believe.

The state Employment Development Department reported there were 233,500 people listed as unemployed in Riverside and San Bernardino counties in March, the most recent month for which there is data. That’s more than twice as many as the 103,000 jobless people in March 2004.


Traffic at medical offices in the Inland area varies from practice to practice. One internal medicine specialist recently said it was a two-month wait for an appointment for a complete physical exam.

At the Yucaipa office of internist Walter Jones, patients who want a physical can get an appointment in two weeks, said Jennifer Acevedo, a certified medical assistant, in a recent interview.

“For us, that’s quite a long wait,” Acevedo said. “We’re very busy.”

Other doctors said they could accommodate a patient within a week, which is pretty close to normal. Jennifer Resch-Silvestri, the director of public affairs for Kaiser Permanente, said there were no long waits for routine checkups at any of the huge health maintenance organization’s facilities.

The wait does get a little longer when the procedure is more complex, providers said. A new patient seeking a colonoscopy, an examination recommended for people starting in their 40s, or major dental work, could have to wait more than a month for an appointment.

But it doesn’t appear to slow the demand.

Michelle Turner, the office manager for Corona urologists Ralph Highshaw and Eric Shepard, said she’s seeing more people coming in for elective surgeries, such as vasectomies and bladder suspension procedures.


Workers who lose their jobs and coverage have a bigger safety net from the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, or COBRA, than they had a few months ago. That’s because the economic stimulus package passed by Congress in February lowers the premiums for the coverage. Formerly, COBRA participants who stayed with the insurance provider paid premiums that were usually five times as much as company-sponsored coverage, about 100 percent of a private policy.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act mandates laid-off employers pay only 35 percent of their premiums for nine months. The former employer is responsible for 65 percent and can try to recoup that expenditure through tax credits.

This could help 7 million people keep their coverage, said Matt Bartosiak, senior staff consultant for The Employers Group, a Los Angeles-based human resources consulting firm.

“This is huge news,” Bartosiak said. “If you have kids, or a chronic illness, you’re going to grab anything you can.”

About 500,000 working-age Californians have lost their health insurance coverage since the economic downturn started in late 2007, UC Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education reported last month.

If payments stop

Doctors and other providers, and insurance companies, may also be on notice that this recession might lead to financial complications.

Marian Mulkey, senior program officer for the California Health Care Foundation, said unemployment and disappearing benefits have created “a very uncertain time” for the health care business, especially when illnesses related to stress are factored in.

“But it’s too early to be worried about the impact of more claims and fewer people buying in” on the insurance business, Mulkey said.

She’s more concerned with local providers — the clinics and doctors’ offices that could see fewer patients with the ability to pay.

“There’s a huge variable among the doctors and the clinics,” Mulkey said. “Some are on solid financial footing, and some are in tenuous condition. There are certain groups of health care providers that are just getting by in good times.”


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