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October 1, 2011
Troubled times create a new class of uninsured

The day law students toured Neighborhood Health Services, he sat in the waiting room, holding a cane.

A college graduate who was once the executive director of a nonprofit group, he is now a consultant with only one client, because his other clients folded during the recession.

To many in Tallahassee, he’s a familiar face as a self-employed entertainer.

How did he wind up at the place where the uninsured go for healthcare?

Willing to share his story as long as his name was not used, he is one of almost 21 percent of Floridians without health insurance over the past three years, the third highest percentage in the country, according to Census data released in September.

When he left his last job, he got health insurance through COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act), but he was unable to afford keeping up the $1,600 a month payments.

Besides severe sleep apnea, his heart races from atrial fibrillation, so he has medications, including Coumadin to limit his risk of stroke, and for his blood pressure. He’s also trying to manage diabetes without insulin. A couple of times a year, he’s stricken with gout that he said makes it feel like “shards of glass in my joints” when he moves. He used to be able to buy a generic medication for gout for $4 a bottle, but now it’s off the market and replaced by the brand name Colchicine that costs $140.

To make matters worse, in August he fell down the steps of his house and tore ligaments in his knee, and when he couldn’t walk because of the pain, he landed in the emergency room, where they did an MRI and X-rays.

Helping rack up medical bills were MRSA infections, a stubborn strain of staph.

All in all, he’s mounted up $32,000 in medical debt that would have been much higher if he hadn’t benefited from the We Care Network charity program.

“It’s really hard and overwhelming to try to work with people I owe money to. It’s hard to be on a payment plan when you are not in a salaried position. I might make $800 or $2,000 a month, depending on how many gigs I get.”

One gig occasionally takes him to Ireland, where he takes advantage of its public healthcare system by paying roughly $500 U.S. dollars at the emergency room and receiving any medical care he may need, including surgery.

“I can get better health coverage in Ireland than I do in my own backyard,” he said.

He is grateful for Dr. José Rodríguez, the Florida State University medical school professor who sees primary care patients at Neighborhood Health Services, where law students are part of a new Medical Legal Partnership clinic.

Between gigs, he looks for a job with benefits, sending out one to five applications every week, and he recently filed paperwork and is waiting to see if he qualifies for Medicaid.

“I’m hopeful that with the national healthcare law, that preconditions clause will be removed in 2014. But I see a lot of Republicans and tea party folks tearing apart at the bill and trying to dismantle it.”

Meanwhile, he’s grateful Neighborhood Health Services is there to help.

“I don’t know if I’m the typical client.

“But more and more, I see people like me having to use their services. I see more and more people who used to be middle-income folks having to come in. It’s a growing issue.”

[Revised: 09-02-2014]