In Wyoming, the working poor remain uninsured
—December 31, 2013
He could be a poster boy for the uninsurable, pre-Obamacare. At 58, the Wyoming man has a host of pre-existing conditions: a stroke, quadruple bypass heart surgery, high blood pressure, diabetes and chronic depression.
Laid off from his job of 19 years in January, he lost his company health insurance and, being newly unemployed, couldn’t afford the price of more than $1,000 per month to keep it through COBRA coverage.
He helped start a nonprofit business that, 10 months later, has failed to produce enough revenue to allow him to draw a salary. He worked part-time and did whatever jobs he could pick up while trying to keep his business going and/or find a permanent position elsewhere. In November, his unemployment benefits at both the state and federal level were exhausted.
As medical bills piled up, he looked forward to the health insurance he would be able to obtain beginning Jan. 1 under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Knowing he couldn’t be turned down for health insurance because of pre-existing conditions, the man reasoned it would at least help reduce the cost of future medical care he would undoubtedly need.
How do I know so much about what he was thinking? Well, with apologies to Pogo creator Walt Kelly: I have met the working poor, and he is me.
And I’m still uninsurable.
On Christmas Eve, I tried to meet the deadline to sign up for what has become known as Obamacare. After hearing horror stories about the difficulty of accessing the website, I decided to use the phone so I could actually talk to a human being. I had some questions I didn’t expect a computer program to be able to answer.
After waiting more than an hour, a woman’s pleasant voice came on the line. She answered my queries, and assured me that if I supplied the correct information, I could sign up for the insurance plan that best fit my family’s needs.
I supplied the data, letting her know that while I wasn’t earning much now, I expected to have a full-time paid position in the near future. She said to just let them know about any changes in my work status.
After feeding all of the information into whatever program she needed to, she came back on the line and told me I qualified for Medicaid. My family’s medical care would be completely covered, at least as long as we remained in financial straits.
But there was a catch, and it was a huge one. Since Wyoming rejected the Medicaid expansion that was part of Obamacare to ensure low-income adults health care coverage, I couldn’t sign up. And those tax credits and subsidies that are also part of federal health care reform, to make insurance affordable? Since I qualify for Medicaid, those aren’t available to me.
But I could still get insurance, the woman said, I would just have to pay for it myself. My repaired heart sank a little, and I again waited for her to come back with a plan for myself and my wife.
She explained it was part of the bronze package, which was the lowest form of coverage offered by the health exchange. The deductibles were fairly high, and my cost would be more than $1,300 a month.
“That’s more than I’m regularly making a month now,” I told her.
“I know,” she said.
But she added that there was a bright spot: Because I applied for health insurance by the deadline, I wouldn’t have to pay the $90 a month penalty for not having coverage. I find it difficult to thank the government for at least not taking more money I don’t have away from me.
Any regular reader of this column knows I’ve strongly supported Medicaid expansion in Wyoming. I’ve done so for two primary reasons: It’s paid 100 percent with federal funds for the first three years, and it is gradually reduced to 90 percent until 2020. And, for the working poor people who would benefit from health care coverage, it could be a life-saver. Basically, it’s the right thing for the state to do.
I didn’t expect to ever need help from Medicaid, but at least temporarily, I do. Obviously, my current situation has only deepened my belief that Gov. Matt Mead and the Republican-controlled Legislature have made a devastatingly harmful mistake by not expanding the program.
It’s been obvious from the beginning of this conflict that the state’s argument the federal money could disappear is bogus. The governor and GOP state lawmakers who decided to join the unsuccessful lawsuit against the feds on the ACA’s constitutionality made it clear they are fully willing to sacrifice Wyoming residents who need help in an attempt to show that Obamacare isn’t working.
As one of the 17,000 or so people in Wyoming who qualify for Medicaid coverage but have been denied because of this political game, I can attest to the fact that being thrown under the bus is a painful experience – especially because it’s totally unnecessary. I will continue to make that point as loud and as long as I need to, until the working poor are not treated like second-class citizens.
Even staunch Obamacare opponents like Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio saw that what they did was harmful, and stopped blocking Medicaid expansion. Why won’t Mead?
I don’t expect to remain in the boat I’m in, and I realize I’m in it because it was my choice to do what conservatives always tell people to do – be an entrepreneur and achieve the American dream. Well, I’m working quite hard at that, but the results haven’t materialized yet. Meanwhile, I will continue trying to make our community news website a success while taking every paying freelance assignment I can get my hands on.
But the majority of people who would benefit from Medicaid don’t have any options for climbing out of poverty. It’s difficult to maintain a steady job if you’re sick and don’t already possess job skills. Training opportunities are few and far between. How are they supposed to get ahead and beat a system that is stacked against them? The governor and the GOP leadership in the Legislature act as if they are expendable. And to them, maybe they – I mean we – are.
I don’t think the legislative solutions proposed so far will actually fix the problem, but that’s a topic for another column. For now, let’s go back to my phone conversation with the woman who told me I can’t get Medicaid assistance solely because of where I live.
“I thought this system was designed to help people like me, who can’t get affordable insurance,” I said.
“I’m sorry this didn’t work out the way you wanted it to,” the woman said. “If you don’t have any more questions, I hope you and your wife enjoy a very merry Christmas.”
I thought I detected a hint of humanity in her voice, and hoped she wasn’t just reciting lines from her script. I also figured it has to be terrible to have a job that forces you to give people bad news on Christmas Eve.
“Happy holidays to you,” I replied, and I meant it. I just wished the governor and legislators would stop blocking help for people who deserve to be happy, too.
— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is the editor-in-chief of The Casper Citizen, a nonprofit, online community newspaper. It can be viewed at www.caspercitizen.com.
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