Social Insecurity

The Social Insecurity of Health Care

by Catherine Rourke, Florence

Too young for Medicare.
Tool old to get hired.
Too “rich” to qualify for Oregon Health Plan.
Too broke to afford health plans, premiums
Too sick to work.
Too “healthy” to qualify for SSI Disability.

This is the reality of Alex Duval, age 63, who got his pink slip when his industry collapsed due to digital technology and the economic turndown. Unable to secure a position in a rapidly declining job market, he found himself competing for positions with two other generations – his son and a teenage grandson.

A debilitating illness required surgery and, with no health benefits, Alex also lost everything he owned and filed for bankruptcy. He finally succumbed to early-retirement Social Security [ERSS] at age 62 in order to survive.

According to the 2015 Census, there are over 135,000 people in Oregon between the ages of 62 and 65. Many of these individuals face similar financial and medical crises. They are not deadbeats or dropouts but highly educated, industrious people like Alex who formerly had solid careers. Forced out a job by age, illness, disability, downsizing, younger workers, cheap labor and a host of other reasons, these unemployed mature professionals found themselves left with no choice but to take ERSS.

The National Retirement Risk Index (NRRI) demonstrates that even if individuals work to age 65, nearly 45 percent will be “at risk” of being unable to maintain their standard of living in retirement. Among Baby Boomers and GenXers in the lowest pre-retirement income sector, 41 percent are predicted to run short of money within 10 years of retirement.

The physical and financial being of seniors hinges largely on affordable access to health care coverage. With the average Social Security income currently at $12,000 annually, this population segment faces a critical condition impeded by staggering medical, prescription drug and health care costs. While the socioeconomic conditions are evidently multi-faceted, Alex believes that a profit-based health care insurance system represents the root of the problem. Here’s why.

Alex receives $870 per month, or $10,440 annually, in SS income, just a few dollars off from the national poverty line of $11,770 for a single head of household--an archaic figure by today’s cost of living standard

Since the maximum income ceiling to qualify for Oregon Health Plan coverage is $1,353.55, Alex’s meager income qualifies him for coverage. However, like many of his peers, he still needs to bring in supplemental income to cover basic living needs. Herein lies the dilemma with the current for-profit private health care system.

Were it not for the need to keep under the Oregon Health Plan’s archaic financial ceiling, many of these seniors like Alex could work at part-time jobs, allowing them to earn some additional income needed to make ends meet. Subtract his monthly income from the OHP maximum and it leaves him with $483 gross he is allowed to earn to continue qualifying for health care coverage.

This means that at poverty level, Alex can’t earn more than $120 per week gross income to continue qualifying for health care coverage. Since most part-time jobs average a minimum wage of $9.25, Alex can’t work more than 13 hours a week without losing health care.

According to Alex, it’s extremely difficult to find any job at any wage for such few hours. While he’d like to work 20 hours or more, his health and the health insurance system prohibits him from doing so. If he earns more than the allotted maximum, he would simply be working to pay for a health care plan that would likely include cost-prohibitive premiums and “criminal” deductibles.

Alex believes there is an answer that would restore dignity to seniors and others like him: “publicly funded health care for all.”

Meanwhile, Alex hunts for cash-paying jobs instead, in order to keep under the poverty income ceilings to retain health care coverage and avoid ACA penalties. It’s heartbreaking to watch seniors chasing stray carts in supermarket parking lots for minimum wage in all kinds of weather when these are jobs that once belonged to teens. But it’s also no easy feat for seniors breaking the law to survive and stay one foot ahead of it.

An oppressive, for-profit health system has created a new generation of “forced senior outlaws” scrambling for survival for the sake of health care coverage and compliance and the greatest national disgrace in American history. All Americans of all ages and incomes deserve publicly funded universal health care–all for one, one for all.