First Person: Uninsured

In June of 2002, after three days of vomiting and passing what nurses said looked like reddish-black coffee grounds, I fainted. It was time to see a doctor, but I didn’t have health insurance. With health insurance, I might have visited a doctor sooner and done without the eventual trip to the emergency room and overnight hospital stay. I might have visited a doctor directly after leaving sick from work, after the first sharp pains in my abdomen, and not waited until I lost so much blood that I lost consciousness. By working full time at a tree nursery, and with the gracious help of my aunt who charged me no rent, I was able to pay for the five classes I attended at UWM. My employer had told me I would probably not be able to afford their health insurance, and he was right. Health insurance from school was also out of reach — $1,027 yearly or $262 every three months. At 23 years old, my situation wasn’t unique then, and it certainly isn’t now, three years later. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, out of almost 28 million 18 to 24-year-olds in 2003, 8.4 million did not have insurance. This is an increase of almost seven percent from 1987. In the next age bracket, 25 to 30 year-olds didn’t fare much better, with 26.4 percent of their 39 million living without health coverage in 2003. The Economic Barrier When my friend Ed, a 35-year-old a cook at an east-side restaurant, slipped, broke his wrist, and was unable to work for a few months. He lived off of workers compensation until his injuries healed. Ed was fortunate — he was injured on the job, and didn’t have to foot the cost. But he saw the hospital bills. “It came to well over 10 grand, not including physical therapy,” he said. By the time Ed’s next paycheck comes around, his take-home pay will be a little larger. He has decided to drop his health insurance. “It’s about $60 a month for only a $2,500 deductible in the emergency room, and a $20 co-pay at the doctor. I want that $60 back. “The economy is only good for the people who have the most money,” said Ed. “There’s a purely economic barrier around health insurance. If you have the money, you can get in.” Ed stressed that employers shouldn’t be singled out as the bad guys — they too feel the financial squeeze. Former Wisconsin Budget Director and Milwaukee Administrator David Riemer agrees. On May 4, he spoke at a local healthcare conference addressing the problems of the uninsured. “When employers face high costs for economic reasons, they reduce coverage or lay off. It’s not that they are bad people, they just cannot afford it,” he said. Riemer added that employers aren’t creating jobs as they should because of the drag of healthcare costs. Losing Sleep At least twice a week telemarketers get past my normal defenses by catching me napping on the couch. They call to tell me that for a nominal fee, based on my credit debt (accumulated buying text books) I could be protected from going into default caused by injury, sickness, or loss of job. I can never get back to sleep. I haven’t been insured for the last six years. I have no children, no car, no cable. Not even a color TV. What I do have is medical debt, credit card debt, student loans, rent, utility bills, the internet, and a $50 newspaper subscription. My student loans and my job as a cook have to pay for it all. It’s important to remember that students work student jobs. They are waiters, cooks, clerks, cashiers, dishwashers, pizza deliverers, retail workers, and telemarketers. These part-time jobs don’t pay more than $8 an hour. They don’t provide health care. “They don’t value the poor” Peggy Brown, Health Educator for UWM’s Norris Health Center said there isn’t a day that goes by that they don’t run into a student who is under-insured or uninsured. “Society puts money into people they value — they don’t value the poor,” she said. According to Brown, Milwaukee County’s General Assistance Medical Program (GAMP) has been pretty good for students. Only a few have been declined — mostly because students living in dorms don’t have proof of County residency. GAMP was started in 1997 to help uninsured County residents. The state-funded program allows eligible applicants to choose from 13 clinics. Applicants must have been residents of Milwaukee for the last 60 days, cannot be eligible for other forms of insurance, and must meet income guidelines of less than $902 per month for singles, less than $1429 for a family of three. There were programs in place at the time of my emergency room visit that would have significantly reduced my medical costs. However, the only thing I was told by the hospital’s financial advisor was that I didn’t qualify for help because I didn’t pay rent. A week later bills for $7,000 showed up in the mail with instructions on how to pay the entire balance by credit card. There are other resources for low-income, uninsured people. Peggy Brown suggests: * People outside Milwaukee County should contact local health departments. * Some associations serve specific needs, like Planned Parenthood. * Some facilities serve people with language needs, like the Hmongs and Hispanics. * In financial need, always suggest a sliding scale to health care providers. Although I have been told they once existed, the black leather bag-toting doctor making house calls never paid me a visit. Those days are over. “You don’t see the corner doctor working for the neighborhood charging cheaper prices anymore,” said Ed. “They’ve learned how to concentrate the health industry in order to compete.” Ed. Note: The Riverwest Clinic, 826 E. Center St., offers fee-for-service, and works with underinsured and uninsured patients, offering public insurance information and limited sliding scale payment options. 414-372-5553. Columbia/St Mary’s Family Practice Center, 1121 E. North Ave. has a free clinic on Saturday mornings for uninsured. 414-267-6500.