A quest for coverage
The state's jobless rate has hit a 15-year high, and for the people behind the statistics, there is a special urgency. Massachusetts, unlike other states, requires nearly everyone to have health insurance - even if they have lost their job and, with it, their health coverage. Going without insurance for more than three months can result in a stiff penalty. Congress is crafting a stimulus package that would provide laid-off workers with some health coverage assistance, but for now, the state's unemployed, and underemployed, are scrambling to piece together affordable coverage. Unemployment benefits, or a spouse's income, can make recipients ineligible for health insurance assistance through the state. The hunt for coverage is challenging. Here are three examples.
In the netherworld of unemployment, Vivian Izuchi is one of the lucky ones. Barely a month after being laid off as director of an after-school program at Roxbury Presbyterian Church - the program closed because of low enrollments - the 53-year-old is poised to start a new job as director of another church-based after-school program.
A vivacious mother of three girls, Izuchi says parenthood has been a "blessed" distraction during a hard time. "It doesn't give you time to dwell," she said.
Right now, Izuchi's mission is to find new health insurance. The new job doesn't include that benefit, and coverage from her previous job just expired.
"I am investigating everything and anything I can," she said.
Winter is an especially dicey time in the Izuchi household to be without health insurance. Colds tend to exacerbate the girls' asthma.
That Izuchi's last job provided health coverage was extraordinary, given that many small employers do not.
Church leaders, who backed the state's landmark law to expand access to more residents, scrounged to find coverage for her.
The coverage they found was expensive, given her modest salary - Izuchi paid a nearly $600-a-month premium for herself, three daughters, and her husband, now an unemployed cab driver. But it was decent health coverage, she said.
Now she and her new boss are scouring the Internet and sorting through the maze of state-subsidized programs to see if she might qualify for one.
"God looks out for fools and babies," Izuchi said. "I can't dwell on the negative."
One hundred hours, at a minimum. That's how long Cynthia MacPherson swears she has spent on the phone in the past month piecing together health coverage for herself, her husband, and their three children.
"I am the biggest bulldog, when it comes to my kids," said MacPherson, 46, who was laid off Nov. 29 from her job as a part-time restaurant manager. A week later, her 50-year-old husband, Jim, lost his management job at a construction equipment firm.
Amid the upheaval, the Holbrook couple took solace in one lifeline: Jim MacPherson's severance package included health coverage for the entire family through May, with a relatively modest $301 monthly premium. Or so they thought.
Then eye-popping insurance bills started rolling in in January for their 12-year-old daughter Tanya's diabetes treatments. The insurance had been canceled because of a paperwork mix-up.
As she scrambled to fix that, MacPherson also applied for health coverage through MassHealth, the state-subsidized insurance program for the poor. She said state counselors told her the family's unemployment benefits were meager enough that the children would qualify for help with prescription copayments and deductibles not covered by their private insurance. But MacPherson first had to untangle the private insurance snafu.
"It's overwhelming," said MacPherson. "Day after day, sitting on hold for an hour, trying to get some sort of answer."
The private insurance was recently reinstated. Now the MacPhersons are searching for new jobs - and waiting for written confirmation, MacPherson said, that their children qualified for the MassHealth coverage.
"We got [Tanya's] insulin pump and now I am worried the next bill I open is, 'You weren't covered for this, and it's $6,000,' " MacPherson said. "It's scary to think that this could still fail."
Aria Weissman graduated in May from Emmanuel College with big dreams and even bigger bills.
By September, the 22-year-old had landed the job she coveted - working at a nonprofit organization, and using her BA in sociology to help troubled children. Then, in November, she and 21 colleagues were laid off.
Now Weissman is back on the job hunt - this time without health insurance. Her student coverage expired in June, and her employer-paid care ran out Jan. 1.
"It almost makes me feel like, why did I go to college and get a BA?" she said. "My BA means nothing now."
With $30,000 in student loans, $500 in medical debt for expenses her student health insurance didn't cover, plus car and phone bills, Weissman is waitressing full time, sending out resumes, and hoping she doesn't get sick.
"When I knew my health insurance was about to run out," she said, "I made all my doctors' appointments I needed."
Her monthly premium for health insurance used to be $140 - tough but manageable on her $25,000-a-year social service job. But that monthly bill jumped to $400, she said, when her work coverage ended and she switched to COBRA, which allows laid-off workers to continue their coverage but at full price, without their employer's large subsidy. Weissman said she can't afford that.
Her top priority now is finding another job, and her determination is fierce. She fears the competition, however, is even more so.
"I apply to five or 10 jobs a day, and everyone is facing budget cuts, so it is tough to get a job in this field," she said.
"I don't want to pay out of my pocket for all this health insurance. And I almost feel the reason I'm not doing it is, I keep telling myself I am going to get a job."
Correction: Because of a reporting error, a report in the Metro section Sunday on how laid-off workers can get health insurance included an inaccurate web address for Commonwealth Care. It is www.mahealthconnector.org.