When a Job Disappears, So Does the Health Care

posted Dec 8, 2008, 4:01 PM by franqui coat   [ updated Dec 8, 2008, 4:08 PM by John Clegg ]
Published: New York Times, December 6, 2008

Starla D. Darling, 27, was pregnant when she learned that her insurance coverage was about to end. She rushed to the hospital, took a medication to induce labor and then had an emergency Caesarean section, in the hope that her Blue Cross and Blue Shield plan would pay for the delivery.


David Maxwell for The New York Times

Starla D. Darling, with her son, Colt, and daughter, Kathryn. Ms. Darling lost her health benefits when a cookie factory closed.


ASHLAND, Ohio — As jobless numbers reach levels not seen in 25 years, another crisis is unfolding for millions of people who lost their health insurance along with their jobs, joining the ranks of the uninsured.

David Maxwell for The New York Times

Jeffrey D. Austen was among the 275 people who worked at the factory, in Ashland, Ohio. Mr. Austen and several other former workers said they had decided to put off medical procedures.

The crisis is on display here. Starla D. Darling, 27, was pregnant when she learned that her insurance coverage was about to end. She rushed to the hospital, took a medication to induce labor and then had an emergency Caesarean section, in the hope that her Blue Cross and Blue Shield plan would pay for the delivery.

Wendy R. Carter, 41, who recently lost her job and her health benefits, is struggling to pay $12,942 in bills for a partial hysterectomy at a local hospital. Her daughter, Betsy A. Carter, 19, has pain in her lower right jaw, where a wisdom tooth is growing in. But she has not seen a dentist because she has no health insurance.

Ms. Darling and Wendy Carter are among 275 people who worked at an Archway cookie factory here in north central Ohio. The company provided excellent health benefits. But the plant shut down abruptly this fall, leaving workers without coverage, like millions of people battered by the worst economic crisis since the Depression.

About 10.3 million Americans were unemployed in November, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of unemployed has increased by 2.8 million, or 36 percent, since January of this year, and by 4.3 million, or 71 percent, since January 2001.

Most people are covered through the workplace, so when they lose their jobs, they lose their health benefits. On average, for each jobless worker who has lost insurance, at least one child or spouse covered under the same policy has also lost protection, public health experts said.

Expanding access to health insurance, with federal subsidies, was a priority for President-elect Barack Obama and the new Democratic Congress. The increase in the ranks of the uninsured, including middle-class families with strong ties to the work force, adds urgency to their efforts.

“This shows why — no matter how bad the condition of the economy — we can’t delay pursuing comprehensive health care,” said Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio. “There are too many victims who are innocent of anything but working at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Some parts of the federal safety net are more responsive to economic distress. The number of people on food stamps set a record in September, with 31.6 million people receiving benefits, up by two million in one month.

Nearly 4.4 million people are receiving unemployment insurance benefits, an increase of 60 percent in the past year. But more than half of unemployed workers are not receiving help because they do not qualify or have exhausted their benefits.

About 1.7 million families receive cash under the main federal-state welfare program, little changed from a year earlier. Welfare serves about 4 of 10 eligible families and fewer than one in four poor children.

In a letter dated Oct. 3, Archway told workers that their jobs would be eliminated, and their insurance terminated on Oct. 6, because of “unforeseeable business circumstances.” The company, owned by a private equity firm based in Greenwich, Conn., filed a petition for relief under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code.

Archway workers typically made $13 to $20 an hour. To save money in a tough economy, they are canceling appointments with doctors and dentists, putting off surgery, and going without prescription medicines for themselves and their children.

Archway cited “the challenging economic environment” as a reason for closing.

“We have been operating at a loss due largely to the significant increases in raw material costs, such as flour, butter, sugar and dairy, and the record high fuel costs across the country,” the company said.

At this time of year, the Archway plant would usually be bustling as employees worked overtime to make Christmas cookies. This year the plant is silent. The aromas of cinnamon and licorice are missing. More than 40 trailers sit in the parking lot with nothing to haul.

In the weeks before it filed for bankruptcy protection, Archway apparently fell behind in paying for its employee health plan. In its bankruptcy filing, Archway said it owed more than $700,000 to Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois, one of its largest creditors.

Richard D. Jackson, 53, was an oven operator at the bakery for 30 years. Mr. Jackson and his two daughters often used the Archway health plan to pay for doctor’s visits, imaging, surgery and medicines. Now that he has no insurance, he takes his Effexor antidepressant pills every other day, rather than daily, as prescribed.

Another former Archway employee, Jeffrey D. Austen, 50, said he had canceled shoulder surgery scheduled for Oct. 13 at the Cleveland Clinic because he had no way to pay for it.

“I had already lined up an orthopedic surgeon and an anesthesiologist,” Mr. Austen said.

In mid-October, Janet M. Esbenshade, 37, who had been a packer at the Archway plant, began to notice that her vision was blurred. “My eyes were burning, itching and watery,” Ms. Esbenshade said. “Pus was oozing out. If I had had insurance, I would have gone to an eye doctor right away.”

She waited two weeks. The infection became worse. She went to the hospital on Oct. 26. Doctors found that she had keratitis, a painful condition that she may have picked up from an old pair of contact lenses. They prescribed antibiotics, which have cleared up the infection.

Ms. Esbenshade has two daughters, ages 6 and 10, with asthma. She has explained to them why “we are not Christmas shopping this year — unless, by some miracle, Mommy goes back to work and gets a paycheck.”

She said she had told the girls, “I would rather you stay out of the hospital and take your medication than buy you a little toy right now because I think your health is more important.”
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