Insurance Coverage Falls as Unemployment Rises; No Income Means No Insurance, and Possibly Sicker Folks in the Future

Article excerpt

Byline: JEREMY COX

Beverly Raile misses a lot of things about her land-surveying job, including the scenery, the people she worked with and the rush of not knowing what the next day would bring.

But what the Arlington woman misses most is something she took for granted: health insurance.

"That's one more thing I have to worry about on top of everything else we're going through as a family," said Raile, a single mother of two girls, ages 8 and 11.

Raile, who lost her insurance when she was laid off in November, is one of more than 5.7 million Floridians who were uninsured at some point in 2007 or 2008.

As the state's unemployment rate has surged -- from 5 percent in January 2008 to 8.6 percent a year later -- so too have the ranks of the uninsured, experts say. The expansion of the state's uninsured population is "worse than an epidemic," the head of a national health care advocacy group said last week.

Public health officials in Northeast Florida and statewide worry that tougher access to care will result in more emergency room visits, where treatment is most expensive. They also fear the uninsured are delaying routine care, putting them at risk of being sicker in the future.

That fear is already becoming a reality, said the head of a company that owns two urgent-care clinics in Jacksonville.

"What I've seen in the last two or three months and particularly in the past few weeks is that kids are showing up sicker and sicker," said Sama Soleymani, president of Avecina Medical. "When you look down and see that the patient doesn't have health insurance, you kind of put two and two together."

Soleymani was so disturbed about the trend that he decided to offer free care to children of low-income or out-of-work parents, beginning April 1. The program will be open to up to 10 patients a day at each of Avecina's clinics.

The free visits would normally cost about $110 each, he added.

Duval County's increase in unemployment has been sharper than the state's, bolting from 4.9 percent to 8.8 percent. That equates to 18,000 lost jobs.

In St. Johns County, the lone hospital has witnessed patients cutting back on tests and procedures that can wait.

"This just started: We're seeing a decline in people getting elective things like imaging studies," Flagler Hospital CEO Joe Gordy said. "They're just saying, 'We can't afford that.' "

The hospital has been sheltered somewhat from the uninsured crisis so far. But Gordy expects that to end if budget cuts at the county school system, one of the county's biggest employers, lead to layoffs.

A Families USA estimate of more than 5.7 million uninsured residents far exceeds the state's own estimate of 3.8 million and represents two of every five state residents under the age of 65. The higher number reflects those who were uninsured even temporarily, said the organization's executive director, Ron Pollack.

The vast majority of the uninsured -- more than three in four -- were without coverage for at least six months, likely causing people to delay needed health care and exposing them to greater health problems in the future, he said.

"The huge number of people without health coverage in Florida is worse than an epidemic," Pollack said. …