What's Health Insurance, Mom?

Last January, my husband -- a former (though not by choice) information technology professional -- lost his second job in 18 months. The first time around, a generous severance package made it possible for us to purchase COBRA to the tune of $800 per month. It was a painful sum to spend for "peace of mind." But in the beginning of our journey into the woolly world of uncertainty, we felt compelled to maintain as many as ties to mainstream society as we could.

When my husband's second employer went belly-up, however, 95 percent of the employees were dismissed without notice or compensation. When the topic of COBRA arose, we just rolled our eyes. "Eight hundred a month?" we snorted simultaneously. "Right."

But we worried. Once, when our 7-year-old daughter, Isabelle, jumped from a surface that was about five feet off the ground, my husband blurted out the first thing that came into his head: "Be careful," he shouted. "We don't have health insurance!"

"What's health insurance?" she shouted back.

My husband and I looked at each other with matching expressions of bewilderment. "It's, um, money that you pay to a company, that will pay your doctor's bills if you get sick," I said.

"Why don't you just pay the doctor?" she asked.

"Because it's too expensive."

A few weeks later, Isabelle and I were walking down the street in Brooklyn when we came upon a folding card table that was covered with plush bunnies and brightly colored flyers that said, "Care Plus." The woman behind the table gestured toward Isabelle, and asked: "Does she have health insurance?"

"Actually, no," I said.

The nice woman explained to me that Care Plus was one of several healthcare facilitators contracted by the state to manage Medicaid. Because of our downward mobility, Isabelle would qualify for comprehensive coverage at a cost to us of $9 per month. However, our combined income ($1,620 per month in unemployment benefits, plus the small sums that I earn as a freelance writer and substitute teacher) exceeded the maximum qualifying income for family coverage.

When I asked the Care Plus representative if she had any suggestions for how I could score some affordable health insurance for my husband and myself, she shook her head. "I'm afraid that if you can't afford COBRA, your only choice is to pay out of pocket."

"So who's going to take care of all those healthy kids when their parents get sick because they can't afford to visit a doctor?"

"It's insane," she admitted. "Uninsured adults often don't go to the doctor because they don't think they're sick enough. But sometimes they are sick enough; sometimes they even die."

Isabelle, who doesn't miss much, asked me on the way home why her parents have no health insurance.

"It has to do with politics," I said. "And money. And certain people being very greedy and very selfish."

"Maybe you and Daddy could use my health insurance if you need to go to the doctor," she suggested.

I didn't want to tell her that health insurance for children is a cheap way to appease the public because most kids don't get seriously ill. So I just replied, "It would be great if it worked that way," as I thought bitterly about the billions that George W. spent on the war in Iraq, and billions more that he's trying to spend on tax cuts for the wealthy.

Shortly after we got home, I Googled "uninsured Americans," and found an Infoalert fact sheet posted on May 20, 2003 by the United Steel Workers of America. "The United States is the ONLY industrialized country in the world without a national healthcare system that insures coverage for all," it read. And, "18,000 Americans will die prematurely this year due to lack of healthcare." Recently, a leading story in The New York Times reported: "The number of people without health insurance shot up last year by 2.4 million, the largest increase in a decade, raising the total to 43.6 million, as health costs soared and many workers lost coverage provided by employers."

My heart sank. At 7, my daughter should fret over the well being of her favorite stuffed animals -- not the fates of her uninsured parents. But our luck is destined to change. My husband's unemployment benefits will soon expire, making us poor enough, finally, for Family Care Plus.

Jennie Green is a freelance writer based in Jersey City, New Jersey.

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