Five years of high unemployment have driven another 216,000 Coloradans into such dire straits that they qualify for Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the poor.
That jump – to a total of 608,000 people in major financial trouble – has cost Colorado’s budget an extra $1.4 billion since 2007. The continuing rise in the cost of Medicaid is the main reason the governor proposed cutting school funding again this year.
Something has to go.
State officials blame the recession for pushing so many people into the very low level of income required to qualify for Medicaid – such as $22,000 or less for a family of four. A single person doesn’t qualify, except in special circumstances, like if they are developmentally disabled, said Rachel Reiter of the state Department of Health Care Policy and Financing.
The recession has changed the type of people who need help with health care, says Kraig Burleson, CEO of the Inner City Health Center in Denver.
“It’s not just the classic model of what you think of as poor. It’s your neighbors. It’s the recently unemployed. It’s just a different population than people think,” Burleson said.
Most people on Medicaid are kids, like the four children of Clara Harris of Aurora. Harris took them in as foster children covered by Medicaid, and then adopted them.
Harris, 55, also often babysits four of her grandchildren. Three of them are uninsured. “His dad used to have insurance, but he can’t afford it anymore,” Harris said.
Last month, one of those uninsured children had to be rushed to the doctor with an asthma attack. The $70 bill for the doctor and prescription for 4-year-old Dante Jameson meant real sacrifice.
“We got together as a family and paid for it out of pocket,” Harris said.
Scraping up that money meant other things had to be cut. “Seventy dollars means a lot to me,” Harris said. “I can take $70 and stretch it forever and make it work for my family. Food and everything else.”
On a recent day, all seven small faces crowded around Harris on the family couch, listening to her explain their tough circumstances in this economy. “Just to feed them, to have a big Christmas dinner, it’s hard,” she said.