What are your health options after a job loss?
The unemployed can go without health insurance or pay for it alone; others can join a government plan.
By Sabine Vollmer and Kirsten Valle
CharlotteObserver.com - 2 hours ago
With more layoffs looming as the economy continues to struggle, what are the rising number of unemployed without health insurance to do? Here are some options:
Ride it out and hope for the best. Community health centers provide medical care for the uninsured and charge based on income. Drugmakers provide free medications through the Partnership for Prescription Drug Assistance for eligible applicants. Details: www.pparx.org
Get coverage through a spouse's or domestic partner's employer. Under the law, unemployed workers who lose their employer-sponsored health insurance have 30 days to enroll in a plan offered by their spouse's or domestic partner's employer.
Continue coverage through COBRA. COBRA allows eligible workers to stay in the health plan they had at their former job. COBRA coverage is usually good for 18 months but can be expensive. Some people who became unemployed because their jobs went overseas can get help with their COBRA premiums through the health coverage tax credit.
Buy an individual health insurance policy. Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina is the largest provider, but a number of insurers market individual policies in North Carolina. For a list go to Services for Consumers: Health Insurance Information
. Annual premiums in North Carolina average $3,080.
Insurer of last resort. The N.C. Health Insurance Risk Pool is available to those who lack insurance because they have health problems, have exhausted their COBRA benefits or lost their jobs to overseas competition. Details: Home
Nettie Shafer has a house, a car and about $1,000 left in savings. But the 59-year-old divorced bank teller risks losing it all if she doesn't find a job with health insurance benefits soon.
Shafer, who lives in Raleigh, is on about a dozen medicines, seven of them to prevent a third heart attack.
Now, the insurance coverage she retained from her former job at Wachovia has run out â€“ and the backup she has available covers only a fraction of her medical costs.
â€śI'm still looking for a job, every day,â€ť Shafer said. â€śâ€¦ A survival job is all I need.â€ť
The recession has not only cost thousands of people their jobs, it has also cost them affordable health insurance.
People who had employer-sponsored health insurance are, when laid off, usually eligible for up to 18 months of continued coverage under COBRA, the federal law more formally known as the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act.
But COBRA can be expensive.
Unemployed workers must pay the total premium. The monthly average is more than three times as expensive as what workers with employer-sponsored health insurance pay, according to data by the Kaiser Family Foundation and FamiliesUSA.
That can take a hefty chunk out of unemployment benefits. In North Carolina, the average COBRA premium for a family eats 82 percent of an unemployment check, according to data from FamiliesUSA, a consumer advocacy group. Many decide to take their chances and don't sign up for COBRA.
At the end of 2008, an estimated 175,000 North Carolinians were out of work and uninsured, according to the N.C. Institute of Medicine. Even though this includes people who lacked insurance before they became unemployed, the estimate represents a 75 percent increase since the end of 2007.
The fourth quarter was particularly brutal in boosting the state's growing number of unemployed who are at risk of becoming uninsured, said John Quinterno of the N.C. Budget and Tax Center.
â€śWe're starting to see significant losses in industries that are more likely to provide health insurance,â€ť he said.
Karen Haines, 53, of Charlotte lost her job in the transportation industry nine months ago and struggled with finding affordable health insurance. COBRA coverage was going to cost her $750 a month, so she checked around with other insurance providers, from AARP to AAA. Finally, she settled on a basic plan with Blue Cross Blue Shield that costs $180 a month.
It doesn't offer dental or vision coverage, which she had while employed, and the coverage is less comprehensive than the plan at her old job.
â€śIt's pretty scary,â€ť Haines said. â€śI always considered myself to be healthy, but I'm scared to death that something's going to happen that's going to cost me $5,000.â€ť
Besides private insurance and joining a spouse's plan, another option for unemployed workers or their family members is Medicaid. Enrollment in the health insurance program for the poor has begun to rise after years of declines. The $787 billion stimulus package that President Obama signed into law last month provides states with about $87 billion in additional funds for Medicaid.
The package also includes $24.7 billion in federal COBRA subsidies to help those who can afford to temporarily stay on their former employer's health insurance plan while they are looking for another job. The subsidies will pay 65 percent of the monthly payments for laid-off workers who are eligible.