Kicked While Down: Unemployed and Uninsured

While America is fixated on the BP oil spill, another crisis has been brewing under the radar: the denial of insurance coverage to the unemployed. Talk about being kicked when you’re down.

According to a June 12 Associated Press article: “Congress allowed emergency health care assistance for unemployed workers to expire May 31, and seems unwilling to renew it despite pleas from President Barack Obama.”

If you talk to most unemployed people, you will find that they do not want to be unemployed. In fact, they want jobs. Unless you’ve been living in an alternate reality (like some of our wealthier citizens), jobs have been few and far in between since before the government and free world admitted that we were in an actual recession.

Speaking of that recession, which was caused by the economic policies of the Bush administration and a Republican-controlled Congress, it’s repulsive for them to now say that they do not want to extend this benefit because it will add to the deficit. And I am disgusted with Democrats who won’t press the issue for fear of not being re-elected. The same politicians who spent countless months trying to get health care reform passed in order to be elected are now turning away from extending this benefit. With representatives like this, who needs enemies?

Lawmakers want to pretend that this deficit and this recession came out of thin air, but it didn’t, and it has impacted North Carolina in a horrible way. Last year, North Carolina’s unemployment rate was the highest it had ever been in 30 years. We won’t even mention the thousands who actually managed to keep jobs, but had to let go of insurance because they couldn’t afford it — or their small businesses couldn’t afford to offer it.

For the unemployed, insurance premiums are more of an issue because they are cost-prohibitive for anyone without a trust fund. The North Carolina/South Carolina jobless rate was at its highest level in 20 years, hitting 12.8 just in January. The unemployment rate remained above 12 percent for some time in Charlotte, prompting President Obama to make a visit in March to discuss job creation, small businesses and a green economy. As of this printing, the unemployment rate has actually been dropping for the last three months, which is good news; however, even though unemployment has dropped to 10.3 percent, 472,614 people are still currently unemployed in the Queen City. So, what happens when these folks and their families get sick?

Under President Obama’s economic stimulus plan, the government provided a 65 percent COBRA subsidy to ensure that those newly unemployed would have health insurance coverage while they looked for a job. It’s one thing to be unemployed, but unemployed and uninsured? Crazy things happen when people are under that type of stress.

Take for example Kathy Myers, the unemployed and uninsured Michigan woman who shot herself in the shoulder in order to get medical attention that she needed for a shoulder injury. It is illegal to deny emergency medical treatment to someone because they lack health insurance. Myers took advantage of that law so that she could get medical attention. That’s extreme (and hopefully Myers got some psychiatric help, too), but this incident is an example of what people should not have to do to get medical care.

Charlotte hasn’t had a “Kathy Myers” yet, but — with almost half a million people out of work and presumably uninsured — how long will it be before we have one? How much can people take? Myers reached her breaking point. What will be ours?

Not all of our elected officials have turned their backs on the uninsured unemployed. According to the AP report, “Democratic Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Sherrod Brown of Ohio have introduced a measure that would allow the program to continue helping people who get laid off through Nov. 30.” Now if only Congress would entertain it.

May 31 has come and gone, and millions of people don’t know whether they will have subsidized insurance coverage. Some people are calling it welfare. Call it what you want, but when people are desperate, they do desperate things — to themselves and to others. It’s not rocket science. Most people obtain insurance through their jobs. When they’re jobless, they don’t have insurance and this measure helped them to have something to offer their families.

I once met an Australian man who told me that he didn’t understand why Americans were up in arms over universal health care. He said that society is only as strong as its weakest members, so it is imperative that you take care of them or your country will not thrive. With more than 10 percent of Charlotteans out of work and even more without health care coverage, it’s a sure bet that we are not thriving.

This article originally appeared on Creative Loafing, where Nsenga serves as cultural critic. She also serves as editor-at-large for TheRoot.com where she writes the Buzz section and contributes features.

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