Las Vegas Sun

November 27, 2014

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Desperate for insurance, residents share health care woes

Inquiries to Sun about free coverage put reform debate in human terms

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Sam Morris

Laurel Levine, 63, is in good health and has been approved for coverage, but can’t afford it. She’s among 21,000 Nevadans 60 to 64 years old who lack insurance.

Laurel Levine turned 63 this week but that’s still not old enough to suit her.

“I’m counting the days until I turn 65,” she said. “I don’t have insurance and my COBRA ran out.”

At 65, people are eligible for Medicare, the federal government’s health insurance. And it doesn’t come soon enough for people who don’t have health insurance where they work — or who don’t work and can’t afford health insurance — at a time when their bodies are starting to break down.

Levine has been in Las Vegas for nine years and had health insurance until she was laid off in 2007 from a time share business that eventually went belly up.

She gets by on her Social Security survivors benefits, but can’t afford insurance. She’s in good health and Health Plan of Nevada approved her for coverage. But it would cost $894 per month — three-fourths of her monthly income.

“God forbid you have a heart attack,” Levine said. “Every day it’s like, ‘I made it through another day.’ It’s that stressful. I think about it all the time.”

Levine is one of an estimated 21,000 Nevadans ages of 60 to 64 who don’t have health insurance.

And now there’s word that, based on income criteria, about two-thirds of them may be eligible for free health insurance, thanks to a $20 million federal grant to the State Health Division. Based on her income, Levine would qualify for the free insurance, but she’ll have to compete: The grant will cover only about 400 people a year.

News of the grant was published in the Sun on Monday and the resulting flood of phone calls and e-mails put a face on the growing need for such help.

Here are some of their stories:

• Olga Carbia, 62, said she is desperate for insurance. She worked in Las Vegas City Hall’s employment and training program for 20 years, and then with a nonprofit organization until she was laid off in 2007. That’s the last time she had health insurance. Since then she’s looked for work as a social worker, translator and bilingual counselor, among other fields.

Cancer runs in Carbia’s family and she’s had it twice — ovarian and skin cancer. She now has a red spot on her leg that isn’t going away. A dermatologist saw her twice for free but she needs a test she can’t afford. In addition, doctors found a lump during her mammogram six months ago, but need to run an additional scan that costs $1,500, she said.

If the United States is the best country in the world, she says, “we should not struggle for health insurance.”

• Richard Martinez, 60, said he was laid off from the Gold Coast 15 months ago. He has been paying $852 a month for COBRA, the federal law that extends health insurance for up to 18 months after a person loses his job. He says he can’t get insurance because of preexisting health problems: asthma, sinusitis, strokes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

• Another Sun reader who didn’t give his name said of his wife, who was laid off from her gemologist job and doesn’t have health insurance: “When you get to be 61 people aren’t in a hurry to hire you even when there are jobs.”

• Arlene Burtnick, 61, said that despite the number of uninsured — the latest U.S. Census estimate is 46.3 million people in 2008, up from an estimated 45.7 million in 2007 — she and others feel powerless. People 45 to 64 years old made up about 10.7 million of the uninsured.

“There’s lots of us out there,” says Burtnick. “But we sit on the sidelines and suffer in silence because there’s nothing we can do.”

Burtnick has been in Las Vegas since 1996 and worked as a dealer for 13 years until she could no longer tolerate cigarette smoke. A widow, she collects $1,360 a month in Social Security benefits and would be financially stricken in a medical emergency. Preventive care is an unaffordable luxury in Burtnick’s world.

“I don’t even have money to go for a yearly mammogram or Pap smear,” she says.

• Frank Scarpa said he was doing well until he hit 62, and then his finances “fell apart.” He had owned a pizza place that was near several car dealerships. The dealers got hit by hard times and laid off their service workers, which cut his pizza deliveries to them from 50 a day to about 15. Scarpa, now 63, had to sell the business. At the same time, he lost his house to foreclosure. He brings in about $1,469 in Social Security but relies on his children to pay his monthly expenses.

A year ago Scarpa had a heart attack. It came two months after he stopped paying for his health insurance and left him with about $88,000 in medical bills. A case worker from Clark County discovered he was eligible for public assistance, and his bills were paid.

Scarpa recognizes the way he’s benefitted from public help, but said he feels conflicted by the health care reform debate taking place in Washington, D.C. He doesn’t believe the government should provide health care to everyone, he said.

“This is a capitalist country; there are winners and losers,” he said. “I just happen to be on the losing side.”

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