Huddled round a TV, with news-radio blaring in the background, Jerry and June Caldwell anxiously awaited the Supreme Court’s all-important verdict at breakfast time yesterday.
When it emerged that, against many expectations, ‘Obamacare’ had survived more-or-less intact, the couple leapt from their sofa, punched the air, and performed a celebratory high-five. “This,” declared Jerry, “is a great day for America!”
He should know. As victims of the free-market excess of the current system, the Caldwells are among hundreds of thousands of Americans who each year face bankruptcy because of unpaid medical bills. Their troubles stem back to the financial collapse of 2008, when Jerry, 55, lost his job as a building contractor. Since US health insurance policies are commonly tied to work, he and June also lost medical cover.
To add to their woes, since the couple's age puts them in a relatively high-risk demographic, they were unable to afford a replacement policy on the private market. “I was earning $1,000 a month as a handyman. June works on commission,“ he recalls. ”But the cheapest insurance we could find was $1,400 a month.“
Medicare, the US government healthcare programme for elderly people, doesn’t kick in until the age of 65. And, like many low-income workers, the couple earned just too much to claim Medicaid, the health programme that assists the poor. “We were caught in the middle,” says Jerry. “Some months, our policy would have cost more than we earned. So we just had to go uninsured.”
That worked fine until November last year, when they both contracted a rare and life-threatening form of Typhus, apparently from fleas carried by their pet dog. They each spent a week in hospital, much of it in intensive care. The bill, when it arrived, was for almost $250,000.
Three debt collection agencies are currently seeking the cash. And, in a country where 60 per cent of bankruptcies are caused by medical fees, Jerry and June now face a long court battle to keep possession of their modest Santa Monica home.
'Obamacare' won’t fix their problems overnight. But when it takes effect in 18 months, it will at least allow the Caldwells – who thanks to recent stays in intensive care are currently unable to find any health cover, at any price - to once more join the ranks of the insured. “From 2014, people can’t be turned down because of some pre-existing condition. And the cost of insurance will fall to a decent level,” says June. “That’s all that matters. We will be allowed and able to purchase insurance. As to the future, almost all civilised countries have some form of public healthcare. I feel that the US will get to that point some time. And the Supreme Court has now taken us to step number one on that road.”Reuse content