By Julia Hawes
March has been a bleak month for hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians.
Going into 2013, North Carolina had the fifth-highest unemployment rate in the country, with three workers available for every job opening. Families across the state needed help.
But rather than being champions for these underdogs—their own constituents—state leaders have kicked them while they’re down.
Lawmakers attacked some folks because they are out of work. Others who are struggling with their health are now paying the price for political posturing in the battle over the Affordable Care Act.
Two Laws Bully and Batter NC’s Underdogs
Earlier this month, Governor Pat McCrory signed a new law that blocks the expansion of Medicaid and rejects federal money that would help low-income individuals get affordable coverage.
Expanding Medicaid would have improved health access for more than 500,000 North Carolinians. It would have saved the state and local governments millions of dollars, as they would no longer have to spend money helping hospitals, community health clinics, and other providers take care of uninsured patients.
The rejection of the Medicaid expansion was the General Assembly’s second body blow to North Carolina’s underdogs. The first came on February 19, when Gov. McCrory signed into law the harshest cuts to unemployment benefits anywhere in the United States. Starting on July 1, 2013, unemployment benefits will be slashed by one-third, with the new maximum benefit set at $350 per week, down from $535. No state has ever made such a severe cut.
The law will cut the maximum weeks of benefits from 26 weeks to a sliding scale of 12 to 20 weeks. Soon the state will offer only half the total weeks of benefits as North Dakota—which, at 3.2 percent, has the lowest unemployment rate in the country.
The law also cut off federally funded extension benefits that more than 80,000 workers currently receive—benefits that are 100% funded by the federal government and bring an estimated $25 million each week into the state to help families make ends meet while they struggle with unemployment.
Unemployed – “The people that lose out are my kids”
Ted (whose name has been changed to protect his privacy), an unemployed worker from Winston-Salem, currently receives $535 each week in benefits. His state benefits expire in June, and he’ll get a few weeks of federal benefits before those end of everyone in North Carolina on July 1. He’s hopeful he’ll have a job before that happens.
Ted knows the difference a few hundred dollars a week can make to a family’s survival. He said that under the new maximum benefit of $350—which would amount to well under $300 after taxes—it would have been impossible for him to support his three children, who are his first priority, as he searched for a new job.
“I don’t know what [politicians] expect people to do,” he said. “I guess they don’t care.”
Ted was in advertising when the recession forced his company to fold in 2008. He spent the next two and a half years looking for work. After taxes, he was living off of approximately $400 a week in benefits, but he owed $1,300 a month in child support. Eventually he had to have the payments reduced, even though he wanted to live up to his responsibility to his family.
“That’s often lost on people,” Ted said. “They’re looking at a single person collecting unemployment. But if my payments go down… it makes it hard for [my ex-wife] to make ends meet. It has a rippling effect. We’re not just sitting at home watching Oprah.” At one point he considered selling his house, but mortgage payments were ultimately lower than rent.
“There’s this misconception that if you just cut out a few things, you’ll be fine,” Ted said. “‘Oh, just cut out cable.’ That’s only $80 a month, compared to $900 a month for the mortgage, $80 for car payments. And you can’t cut those.”
Ted was able to find some work in 2010 and 2011, but one job had him commuting nearly 1,000 miles each week. He found many employers didn’t want to hire someone who was unemployed, so Ted suffered through the long commute just so he could put something current on his resume.
“I tried to do everything right,” he said. The commute drained him—he often missed dinner with his children—and eventually he was laid off a second time. He’s finding the job search marginally more hopeful than the last time around. But at 46, he’s also eager for a senior-level position with a salary to support both him and his children.
When Ted heard unemployment benefits were being slashed statewide, he panicked. People cannot survive on $350, he thought, especially when it’s not just one person relying on that money.
“I was truly scared they were going to enact the cuts March 1st,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
“They’re out of touch,” Ted said of lawmakers. “It’s more than just me and what I need. I’m part of a support group for people. If my mom needs help, I try to help out. This is bigger than just an individual collecting $535… The people that lose out are my kids.”
The Uninsured Face Lose-Lose Situations
Last fall, Anthony Conant took a fall in his apartment in Raleigh. He was messing around with some friends, fell, and used his wrist to brace himself. He didn’t think much of it at the time.
In the following months, Anthony, 25, a student at Wake Technical Community College, noticed persistent pain in his wrist. In early February he went into the emergency room and was diagnosed with tendinitis.
Tendinitis isn’t life threatening, and Anthony’s situation may not seem particularly dramatic. But it’s indicative of a problem across North Carolina—one’s health situation can change in a heartbeat. If you don’t have health insurance and don’t qualify for Medicare or Medicaid, a seemingly innocuous injury can become something much more serious.
Anthony used to be on his parents’ health insurance, which offers coverage to children until they’re 26. However, his father was laid off from work in the summer of 2012, and Anthony has been without insurance ever since. Under North Carolina’s current Medicaid program, if a person between 18 and 64 years of age does not have a serious disability or is not the parent of a young child, they cannot qualify for Medicaid coverage – regardless of their financial situation.
Expanding Medicaid, as called for in the Affordable Care Act, would have offered widespread coverage. Uninsured individuals, who rely on emergency rooms for care, would be able to visit health clinics before minor problems become serious. Prohibitively expensive co-pays and other costs make it difficult for even young and relatively healthy North Carolinians like Anthony to have regular doctor visits.
“It makes a lot of people in my situation—or worse—reconsider their options, or their health,” Anthony said. They ask themselves, “How bad is it? Is my situation bad enough to warrant the cost of health care?”
An emergency room doctor told Anthony to see a hand specialist, but Anthony said he probably wouldn’t be able to afford it.
“A ‘specialist’ implies it’s going to be more money than the hospital, even if it may be able to help me,” he said.
If Gov. McCrory and the state legislature had expanded Medicaid, Anthony likely would have qualified. So would have his parents and girlfriend. “I wouldn’t be as hesitant about getting the help I need,” he said. “Now if something goes wrong, I just have to deal with it because I can’t pay.”
Anthony pointed out that lawmakers likely aren’t the North Carolinians who are on Medicaid, or were hoping to be. As legislators and state government employees, they can get government-sponsored health insurance.
“The people deciding already have health insurance,” Anthony said. “They don’t have to worry about that.”
“You’re supposed to be for the people,” he added. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Democrat or Republican, you’re supposed to be looking out for the well-being and interest of the people. These people already have these perks, and they’re the ones who are specifically deciding for the masses.”
North Carolina’s New State Dog?
With unemployment benefits slashed and Medicaid expansion rejected, hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians are considering their future—and their stories run the gamut of experience.
There are stories of families where both parents work but can’t afford to pay health care premiums for two children and both parents. There are stories of mothers who were once on Medicaid but were disqualified once they got a job that paid them just 27 cents over the income limit, and of young people who take only half-doses of their medications because they have pre-existing conditions and no insurance.
Some of these individuals bear the double impact of being uninsured and unemployed. Already struggling to pay for health care costs, they now face having their benefits slashed in July – benefits that in some cases could mean the difference between staying in their homes and living on the streets. An already challenging experience will become that much more dire.
The long-term damage to these individuals’ lives will be unprecedented and extreme. The “underdogs” of North Carolina who have struggled to find work or adequate health care may soon become the norm. The underdog will become the dominant species in the Tar Heel state.