He's out of work, so health care is out of pocket

DAN RODRICKS

January 01, 1992|By DAN RODRICKS

On the day he started his 46th year with the company, the company told him goodbye. Phil Arnold got a check for $196, which equaled one week's net pay. "It was severance, I guess," Mr. Arnold said yesterday. "But they didn't call it that."

He went to work for Modern Stamp Co., 113 E. Baltimore St., when he was 14 years old. He started out as a delivery boy, then worked in the office, taking orders for rubber stamps, name plates and badges, and for the company's engraving services. He's 59 now. He's lived his entire life within the same block in Brooklyn. He supported his mother for the last 25 years of her life; he took care of a long-disabled twin brother who died seven years ago.

Before he was laid off in late November, he was used to getting up and going to work. And one of the things Phil Arnold counted on was health insurance. Every week, $5 came out of his pay toward the premiums his company paid. But the day Mr. Arnold lost his job was the day he lost his health insurance.

He still doesn't have it, and still doesn't know exactly what to do. He's been getting conflicting advice about how to extend his benefits. And even then, he's not sure he can pay.

All of this, added to the dramatic adjustment to unemployment after 46 years of work, is taking a toll on Phil Arnold. He has a heart condition. He's out of breath a lot.

"I'd like to go look for a job now," Mr. Arnold said. "But my doctor says I'm not supposed to walk more than two or three blocks without resting, and I'm not supposed to lift anything more than 20 pounds. Now, what kind of job can I get?"

Mr. Arnold just cashed an unemployment check from the state for $158. He pays $300 a month for rent. His monthly prescriptions cost $43.

"Out of my pocket," he said. "I guess I'll try to get medical assistance."

I bring Mr. Arnold's case up because it's symbolic of what I've been hearing from all sorts of people -- working people who don't have health insurance; bright people who don't dare make a career move unless they can find a job that includes health insurance benefits; employers who are forced to pay skyrocketing premiums; doctors who say their patients are fed up with insurance companies; older people, short of 65, who pay astronomical premiums for family health plans.

Mr. Phil Arnold of Brooklyn is far from alone.

Nationwide, at least 34 million people have no health insurance. Of that number, some 19 million are working adults.

If there was ever an issue that could bring middle-class working people back into the fold of the Democratic Party it's this one. The presidential candidates would be wise to bang this drum in 1992; they'd draw a crowd -- easily. The case for national health insurance is being made every day. Employers, who pay 70 percent of the premiums nationwide, can't continue to absorb the rising costs.

And despite the increase in costs, service has not generally improved. Far from it.

"Something's gotta be done," a Baltimore psychiatrist told me a month ago. "I've had three patients in the last few weeks threaten to blow up health insurance companies because of their frustrations with them."

A Johns Hopkins comparative study of the primary health care offered to citizens of 10 industrialized nations found the United States sitting at the bottom. And the public dissatisfaction with primary health delivery is linked directly to health insurance. The United States, beating its chest over the fall of communism, still can't provide quality health care to every citizen. We're the only industrialized country besides South Africa that doesn't provide universal health coverage.

As a result, millions of people don't take care of themselves. They postpone going to the doctor. That's what Mr. Phil Arnold intends to do now. He can't handle a big bill. He can't pay for a long hospital stay. So he's taking it easy, taking his medicine -- $43 a month, out of his pocket.

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