TOPICS > Health

Number of Newly Uninsured Americans Rises Along With Jobless Rate

February 11, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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After more than 2 million American workers were laid off in the past three months, the numbers who have lost their health insurance and applied for Medicaid have also risen rapidly. Betty Ann Bowser speaks with Connecticut residents struggling to stay insured.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, a pair of reports looking at the impact of the recession.

As the numbers of laid-off workers are rising, so, too, are the ranks of those without health insurance. Starbucks was the latest company to begin another round of cuts today. In all, more than 2 million Americans have been laid off in the last three months.

Health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser went to Connecticut to see firsthand how all this is changing people’s lives. Our Health Unit is a partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

BETTY ANN BOWSER, NewsHour Correspondent: For the first time in three decades, unemployment in Bridgeport, Connecticut, went double digit in December, 10 percent, making it one of the hardest-hit cities in the country.

Most of the people who’ve lost their jobs have also lost their health insurance. So every day, more and more of the unemployed are being forced to turn to the government for health care through Medicaid.

DOCTOR: Does coughing wake you up at night?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Medicaid provides health care to families with low incomes.

DOCTOR: I want you to take some nice, big, deep, slow breaths through your mouth.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Each state has its own eligibility rules. Many of the new Medicaid applicants have worked all their lives, have always had health insurance, and never had to ask the government for help, until now.

Donny Djurkovic spend a lot of time on the Internet looking for an accounting job to replace the one he lost last year. Recently, he got Medicaid for himself and his son.

Marta Calderon worked for a food wholesale company for 23 years before it closed its Bridgeport office. She recently got Medicaid for her 13-year-old grandson, whom she’s raising, and herself.

Rosita Velez’s husband died three years ago, leaving her with a young child to raise alone. When her job got outsourced, she applied for Medicaid. Her daughter was accepted; she was turned down.

This time last year, Dee Brassell was making $60,000 a year as an analyst for a beverage company. She did find part-time work, but it pays less than half what she was making originally. Currently, she doesn’t qualify for Medicaid.

Three of the four recently took part in a Henry J. Kaiser Foundation focus group on Medicaid. Kaiser estimates that, for every percentage point increase in unemployment, 1 million additional people lose their health insurance.

DEE BRASSELL: It overwhelms you. It takes over your life, that worry.

COBRA too expensive for many

Rosita Velez
Once severance ran out, insurance ran out, COBRA sent me a paper saying, "We can continue your coverage for you and your daughter." They wanted $1,100 a month. How am I going to afford that with no job?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: With the help of the foundation and the Bridgeport Child Advocacy Coalition, the NewsHour sat down with all four last week. They told us about how their lives have been transformed.

Overnight, your world must have been turned upside-down.

DEE BRASSELL: Absolutely. I'm a single mother. Daughter was in college. You know, I had a mortgage, you know. You're thinking, "I'm making X amount of money," and the next day, it seems like the next day, you have nothing. You have nothing.

You have to sit there and wonder, you know, did I do the right thing? Did I save enough? Can I make it to the next day to keep a roof over my head, heat on in the house in the Northeast here, and food on the table? And I wanted to keep my child in school.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Brassell was also unable to afford what's called COBRA, a government program that allows people who lose their jobs to keep their health insurance for at least 18 months. But they have to pay 102 percent of the cost, and most of the time people can't afford it.

DEE BRASSELL: Unemployment was only going to give me $400 and something dollars. COBRA wanted almost $850 a month, plus I have to pay everything else.

My daughter was covered under her father. I had to do without. I had to -- that was one of the things I had to make a hard choice, of not covering myself and pray and hope I don't get ill, hurt, or anything else.

ROSITA VELEZ: Once severance ran out, insurance ran out, COBRA sent me a paper saying, "We can continue your coverage for you and your daughter." They wanted $1,100 a month. How am I going to afford that with no job?

DONNY DJURKOVIC: Waking up in the morning, worrying about the future, the mortgage, the price of gas and health insurance, which is the most important thing, especially for my son, and it's a lot of worries, really. You know, one morning you wake up, and all these years that I worked very hard, it just goes down the drain, really, you know, it's -- you're stuck right in the middle of nowhere.

MARTA CALDERON: After I got the layoff, they offered me the COBRA, but it was going to be $1,608 a month, and I only get $365 for unemployment.

So I had applied for the Medicaid before that, because I am a diabetic. I have heart disease. I'm obese and a heart condition. And sometimes I can't walk, so I needed my medication. The Medicaid came in and has helped me with my medicines, because I had to decide whether to buy my medicine, or pay my bills, or buy food for the table.

'You ration your life'

Dee Brassell
You don't even drive around the corner to a store that you don't need to go to if it's out of the way. You ration your gas. You ration your food. You ration your life.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: What kind of changes have you made in the way you live your lives financially? What have you had to give up?

DEE BRASSELL: Going out for that extra coffee, girls' night out, which was never very expensive anyway, but it just doesn't exist anymore. Things -- it's not that we cut back. They don't exist. We just don't do it. You don't even drive around the corner to a store that you don't need to go to if it's out of the way. You ration your gas. You ration your food. You ration your life.

DONNY DJURKOVIC: I love golfing, you know, and I didn't play too many times this year since I lost my job, because golfing is not a cheap sport. And we learned how to change, and no time out, not going out for dinners or lunches or anything.

ROSITA VELEZ: We don't go bowling anymore, but I think the most important thing that I had to give up was doing without my medication, because I don't have insurance now. I can't afford to pay for my medication for my rheumatoid arthritis.

And before my daughter got her insurance, it was either I buy my medicine or my daughter's medicine, who has a heart condition and epilepsy. And her medication is $180 for one bottle. So I gave up my medicine to be able to buy her medicine.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And you haven't had medication for six months?

ROSITA VELEZ: Six months.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Marta, what have you had to give up in your life?

MARTA CALDERON: All the Christmas presents I used to get for everybody. This year, nobody had a Christmas at home. If I buy food for the table, I cannot pay the gas or the electric. I'm behind on both items. And my rent is one month behind, and now the other month is due this month.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Three times, Velez was denied Medicaid because her total household income was just over $29,900, the cutoff point in Connecticut for a family of two.

ROSITA VELEZ: They say I was over-budget. I was making too much money because my daughter gets a death benefit check from her father passing. I was able to now start collecting unemployment, so they put the two together and said I was over-budget.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Had any of you ever in your lives needed to ask the government for help before?

ROSITA VELEZ: No.

DONNY DJURKOVIC: It was always them, never me. This is my first time that I asked for help.

Searching for work

Donny Djurkovic
I had a couple interviews, and I was called twice to this private bank in New York City. And they called me, "We like you very much, but we decided to put a freeze on hiring." And that was it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And what did it feel like going into that office to apply for Medicaid?

DONNY DJURKOVIC: I don't want to say it feels degrading, because it's not my fault. I didn't lose my job because I did something bad on my side, but it could happen to anybody, and I didn't feel bad at all, because I pay a lot of taxes to the government all these years, and now I need help. So I didn't feel bad at all, and I still don't feel bad, to be honest with you.

DEE BRASSELL: People just don't really understand or realize, you know, this is how -- we're the norm. We're not the abnormal. We're not -- you know, this is the norm. This is how people really are in the U.S., you know? And we're struggling. And we need help, some kind of help, you know, to just survive.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Was there anything unsettling about having to ask for government help, Marta?

MARTA CALDERON: Yes, because I'm raising a grandson. He's 13 years old now, and I've supported this child since he was 30 days old. And all of a sudden, I have to put his name down, you know, for help.

And I didn't want to do that because I didn't want the government to help me, because I didn't want to be like everybody else that -- they say that we always depended on -- that, you know, the minority always depends on welfare, and I worked for 23 years. It was a necessity, and that's why I had to do it, for my grandson.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: How difficult is it to find a job?

DONNY DJURKOVIC: Very difficult.

DEE BRASSELL: Extremely. They don't exist. It's hard.

DONNY DJURKOVIC: I had a couple interviews, and I was called twice to this private bank in New York City. And they called me, "We like you very much, but we decided to put a freeze on hiring." And that was it.

DEE BRASSELL: I go online. I do a lot online. It goes into La-La Land, dead air. A couple of callbacks. I did a few interviews over the phone. I did into some face-to-face interviews. You hear from them, sometimes nothing.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: All four told us they are worried about keeping up with their house payments and rent. And Velez, who currently has no health insurance of any kind, prays every day that her rheumatoid arthritis won't get worse.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For the record, the new stimulus deal does include more federal aid to states to help pay for rising Medicaid costs. The bill also would provide a federal subsidy to help some laid-off workers purchase health insurance through the COBRA program, but the subsidy would be smaller than initially proposed.