America's Looming Health Care Disaster

Last year at this time, health coverage may well have been among the last things on Terri Rushing's mind.

Her husband, David, was 55 years old and working for Champion Homes in McKenzie, Tenn. It was a job he had held for nearly a decade and a half. He had a good Blue Cross and Blue Shield health care plan through his employer, and it was also affordable. Terri Rushing said that she and her husband paid less than $200 in premiums each month.

"We never worried because we always had insurance," she said. "My husband has worked all of his life. We've always had health care; we've never had to worry about not having it."

But on Feb. 7, everything changed. Rushing said her husband went to work as usual, only to find that state troopers blocked his way. The factory had burned to the ground. And with the loss of the plant came the loss of the job David Rushing had worked for the past 14 years.

It is a story that is becoming more common as the country weathers the worst economic downturn in decades. And health policy experts say it may not be long before all Americans feel the impact of what is shaping up to be a national health care disaster.

Today, Terri Rushing's job as an office worker affords her a catastrophic health coverage plan that only kicks in once she is hospitalized. David Rushing, an insulin-dependent diabetic, was able to maintain his health coverage through the health program known as COBRA. But even though it covers only him, the plan costs nearly $400 per month -- twice what they were paying before.

As difficult as the situation is, eligibility for the COBRA program expires after 18 months.

"The COBRA is just going to last until the first of September of next year," she said. "After that, we have no way to pay."

The only way for the family to enjoy the same health coverage they had before would be for David Rushing to find another job that offers similar health coverage benefits as his old position. But now at age 56, and living in a community with two other major plant closings in recent months, David's job prospects are grim.

Terri Rushing has started to shop around for health plans she and her husband can afford.

"I did call several plans when we found out that we were going to start paying for COBRA, basically because we could not afford coverage for both of us," she said. "I was told over and over again that we couldn't qualify."

And she has encountered little sympathy. In one conversation with a health insurance company she contacted, she explained to the customer service representative her difficult situation.

"I asked him, 'So, basically, what you're telling me is that we have a choice between having a house payment and having health insurance.' And he says, 'It sounds like you have a problem.'

"That's it. That's all."

No Longer an Isolated Story

While the number of Americans in a situation like the Rushings' grows, solutions remain elusive.

"There is a huge, looming problem about what to do with people who are unemployed," said Dr. David Nash, dean of the Jefferson School of Health Policy and Population Health in Philadelphia. "The short answer, regretfully, is that there is no good answer for these people."

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor, the unemployment rate rose to 6.5 percent in October, with the number of unemployed people increasing to 10.1 million. Since last year, unemployment rolls have increased by 2.8 million.

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