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Sick, without a safety net

Parks Johnson was on medication for bipolar disorder and recovering from surgery when his health insurer quit covering him. Like millions of Americans, he's now on his own.

December 23, 2009|By Faye Fiore and Janet Hook

His Blue Cross insurance continued through COBRA, a federal program that temporarily extends coverage after a job loss. His parents paid the $280 monthly premium.

He eventually found a job with health insurance at a furniture warehouse. But before the benefits kicked in, his back gave out -- he jumped to catch a roll of duct tape and pins and needles shot through his legs. An MRI showed a severe narrowing of his spine, aggravated by the added weight. He quit before the first week was up, moved home with his parents and underwent surgery.

That's when, at 30, Johnson was told, "Enough." Blue Cross Blue Shield informed him he had hit his lifetime cap. His father's premium check was returned. The bills stacked up.

When one person loses insurance, it usually becomes a family affair. Tucker and Barbara Johnson built their life around helping their son.

They rent a modest town home in Fairfax City, a Washington suburb, on an annual income of $100,000 -- he's a surgical technician, she manages a Navy exchange not far from the Pentagon. To help pay their son's bills, they sold their house to tap the $70,000 profit; they cleaned out a $52,000 retirement account and racked up $47,000 in credit card debt. To rescue him from a breakdown, they dropped everything and drove 16 hours to Greenwood, Miss.

"He's our son," Johnson's father said. "What are we going to do, let him wander the streets and not take his medicine? We couldn't let that happen."

Recovered from surgery and desperate for health insurance, Johnson took a job working with an electrician in northern Virginia who promised to pay if he found a plan. He applied to Kaiser, which had insured him before, and was rejected for preexisting health conditions. Several other companies said the same.

Johnson had hit a wall that affects an estimated 46 million people in America who are without health insurance. In his case, no insurance company would take him because he was already sick, even though his father and his boss were willing to buy him a policy.

The law protects people with preexisting conditions if they are covered by group plans provided by their employers -- people like Johnson's mother. But there are no such protections for those looking to buy individual coverage. More than a third are denied, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Kaiser explains its policy just as the overall insurance industry has: Coverage of the sickest patients -- the most expensive -- is only affordable if younger, healthier people are required to participate in the system to spread out the cost.

"The fact that it's necessary to exclude anyone from coverage to keep it affordable for others is a key flaw of the current system," said Kaiser spokesman Won S. Ha. "What we support is national health reform that requires insurers to cover everyone, so long as all Americans are required to have coverage."

The legislation working its way through Congress would make it mandatory for most people to buy insurance, and would impose financial penalties if they do not. The bill also provides subsidies to people of modest means to help make insurance more affordable.

Uninsured, Johnson kept working for the electrical firm. He quit going to doctors and stopped taking his medications, but was so happy in his new jobit didn't seem to matter. Then he got laid off. Out of options, in fragile health, he moved to Mississippi to take care of his ailing grandfather and got along all right until his grandfather took a fall. Their relationship was thrown into turmoil by the strain of one sick person caring for another. "I just lost it," Johnson said.

Next thing he knew he was in his truck on the backcountry roads where his dad grew up. "I was not all there, but I was driving. It's just a weird state of being," he said.

He had thrown his shirt and right shoe out the window. His mother's voice on the phone snapped him out of it. She raced to Mississippi and found him in a holding unit of the local hospital, talking to spaceships.

"I felt guilty. I gave this to him," Barbara Johnson said, holding a piece of her son's art, her favorite, a lioness etched in black wax, with fur so real it looks wet.

The Johnson family doesn't like to think about what comes next.

"He can't go on like this forever. His grandfather is 86. If he should die, then where is Parks going?" the elder Johnson said, holding on to hope that Obama will sign a new healthcare bill into law soon.

That seems more and more likely, but uncertainties remain. Once the bill is passed by the Senate as expected on Christmas Eve, House and Senate negotiators could spend weeks ironing out differences between their respective versions. Among the many issues to be decided is how quickly each of the insurance reforms would take effect -- some could be remedied immediately, others could take years.

For Parks Johnson, the clock ticks. He just hopes he doesn't get sick before help arrives; he worries about burdening his parents.

"I'm ashamed that they had to go through all that. I've been a handful. I don't want to lay around and do nothing," he said, while his grandfather took a midday nap, the TV blaring in the background.

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