Heath Care in America: The Real Face of Medicaid

By Paul Nyhan | Special Report originally published by Equal Voice News

Lori and Phil Donner. Photo by Karen Ducey for Marguerite Casey Foundation’s Equal Voice News.


What is Medicaid? Who relies on a $350-billion program that provides health insurance to roughly 74 million Americans?

In 2017, Congress placed a target squarely on Medicaid’s back. Republican leaders pushed to cut hundreds of billions of dollars from the health care program, while Democrats, and some Republicans, defended it as critical to the nation’s most vulnerable families.

Medicaid’s fate remains up in the air, to be determined by looming budget battles, and perhaps even the 2018 midterm elections.

But what is Medicaid? More importantly, who relies on this sprawling $350-billion program that provides health insurance to roughly 74 million Americans?

Today, Medicaid ranks among the federal government’s largest commitments to the nation’s families, a complex and sometimes misunderstood joint venture between the federal and state governments on which 1 in 5 Americans relies for health care coverage, according to The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

Medicaid was created 50 years ago with a smaller mission: to cover the nation’s neediest residents, largely those on public assistance. Over the years, it expanded to include people with disabilities and many pregnant women and children – it now covers nearly 40 percent of kids and 45 percent of births, according to Kaiser Health News. In 2010 the Affordable Care Act allowed states to increase eligibility to individuals who earn 138 percent or less than the federal poverty line.

Over the years, Medicaid became a net that could catch those falling into widening gaps in a U.S. health care system where costs were rising as the percentage of workers with employer-provided coverage was falling, according to Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute. By 2015, only 23 percent of those at the bottom of the pay scale had insurance through their employers.

Today, Medicaid covers a wide swath of Americans, ranging from low-wage workers to grandparents.

“Not only is it a health insurance program, it is our largest health insurance program,” said Eliot Fishman, senior director of health policy at Families USA, a Washington, D.C. based health care advocacy group. “People from all different walks of life…depend on the Medicaid program.”

In what could be the greatest reduction in the social safety net in decades, Republicans now want to reshape Medicaid. In October, Congress passed a budget blueprint that proposes cutting Medicaid spending by roughly $1 trillion over 10 years, echoing the Trump administration’s budget, which would cut more than $800 billion in projected spending on the program over the same period.

With Medicaid on the chopping block, understanding who the modern program serves matters more than ever. To gain a clearer picture, Marguerite Casey Foundation’s Equal Voice News traveled to Southern California to talk with people who use Medicaid – warehouse workers, millennials, an auto technician, and families who are white, Black, and Latino. We listened as they explained how a program born during the 1965 War on Poverty became an integral part of their lives.

On a sun-soaked deck overlooking Los Angeles, we met with millennial and former freelance writer Haley Potiker. Twenty-three miles away, we talked with Bruce Jefferson as he prepared to unload shipping crates at the Port of Los Angeles. A few hours down Interstate 5, we met the Donners in a middle-class beach community, grappling with fallout from a catastrophic medical crisis after decades in the workforce.

The bond that connects these families – separated by race, income, and neighborhood – is their reliance on Medicaid at one point or another in their lives. These are the families with the greatest stake in the battle over how, or if, the health care program is resized and reshaped.

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this story.)

New Economy Workers Find Health Care Out of Reach

Warehouse worker Bruce Jefferson, as he heads to work for a 6 AM shift. Photo by Karen Ducey for Marguerite Casey Foundation’s Equal Voice News.

Bruce Jefferson

Age: 57

Work: Warehouse tire chocker

LONG BEACH, Calif. – Every morning Bruce Jefferson arrives for work in the darkness of 4:45 a.m., joining hundreds of men walking down trails from the highway above, riding buses, or driving into the bowels of the Port of Los Angeles. They gather outside the gates of a single warehouse, where they will spend the day unloading shipping crates at the nation’s busiest port.

Jefferson and his coworkers represent another side of the new economy. While Haley Potiker is an example of millennial freelancers who feed the nation’s media brands, Jefferson belongs to an army of lower-wage workers that keeps online shopping goods flowing – an army that often can’t afford private health care coverage.

Despite their central role in the supply chain of today’s retail industry – they move televisions, microwaves, tools, clothes, toys, even Christmas trees for online retailers and others – these workers typically earn minimum wage or a little more.

After two decades working in warehouses around Southern California, first as a lumper unloading shipping crates and now as a tire chocker securing the wheels of those crates, Jefferson, 57, earns just $12 an hour. He relies on Medicaid for his health care coverage.

There is “no way I am affording health care,” Jefferson said as he drank coffee from a portable mug and smoked a cigarette outside the warehouse on an unseasonably hot October day where temperatures would rise above 100 degrees. His current employer, a temporary staffing agency, offers a health care plan, but Jefferson says he can’t pay the premiums on the $17,000 a year he takes home working full time on an unpredictable schedule.

The Venice Beach native has relied on California’s Medicaid program, Medi-Cal, for the last eight years. He is far from alone. In 2014, 23 percent of low-income workers like Jefferson relied on Medicaid or other public health care coverage, according to The Kaiser Family Foundation.

“Those of us who are living paycheck to paycheck really need it,” Jefferson said as he waited to start work. “I believe they are trying to cut it to save money. Money shouldn’t be the issue. It should be about a person’s health.”

At the Port of Los Angeles, Jefferson is engaged in improving warehouse work that leaves many with few coverage options beyond Medicaid. He and other workers have joined forces with the Warehouse Worker Resource Center and the Teamsters union to demand permanent jobs, safe conditions, the right to organize under a union, and a living wage, which could allow them to afford health care coverage.

Today, Jefferson doesn’t really have a choice.

“It’s either (health care) or the rent,” he said.

Millennials Can’t Have It All, a Career Without Health Care

Photo by Karen Ducey for Marguerite Casey Foundation’s Equal Voice News.

Haley Potiker

Age: 28

Work: Writer, communications specialist, record label manager

LOS ANGELES – Haley Potiker was a rising media star as recently as last year, writing for Vice News and Cosmopolitan, moonlighting as general manager of a hip-hop record label, and building a career in the nation’s entertainment capital, Los Angeles.

As a member of the expanding on-demand workforce, Potiker wrote news stories and music profiles from her rooftop deck in LA’s hip Silver Lake neighborhood, with a view of downtown and the iconic Hollywood sign in the background.

But, there was another side to her burgeoning career in the new economy. As a freelance journalist, Potiker earned recognition, but not health insurance. Instead, she remained on her parents’ health care plan until she turned 26, when she was, by law, kicked off.

Even though Potiker worked two jobs – as a writer and label manager – and often logged 10 to 12 hours a day, she only earned about $25,000 a year heading into her late 20s in one of the nation’s most expensive cities. After she lost her parents’ coverage and began shopping for private health insurance she realized she couldn’t afford the $200 monthly premium.

Then one day a 3-inch-thick packet from a Los Angeles-based Medicaid program arrived at Potiker’s apartment, informing the more-than-fully-employed writer and manager she was eligible for the program.

“I put my health care on a credit card for four months until the Medi-Cal packet came along and saved me,” Potiker recalled. “I knew my pay was too unpredictable to put it on a debit card.”

Raised in the wealthy Orange County enclave of Villa Park and a graduate of Occidental College, Potiker never expected to need government help to cover her health care costs. But today, 41 percent of Medicaid enrollees have university degrees or some college experience, Kaiser Health News found.

Potiker was enrolled in Medicaid for two years, until she landed a job at the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) that provided a generous slate of benefits, including health care coverage.

Today, Medicaid covers streams of people like Potiker, who are doing well professionally but still fall through gaps in the U.S. health care system. In the gig economy, even the most successful often lack access to employer-provided health coverage. Roughly 60 percent of working-age adults using Medicaid have jobs (not including those with a qualifying disability), according to an issue brief from The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. A little more than half of those working adults work full time, and 8 out of 10 are in a family where there is at least one worker, according to the foundation.

The number of uninsured workers could grow in coming years as the gig economy, which creates many flexible jobs that rarely come with the benefits of old-economy jobs, continues to expand, fueled partly by a freelancer-reliant online media. This growth, in turn, could expand the ranks of Medicaid.

“It’s unsustainable,” Potiker said. “It’s just really depressing.”

Potiker sees this unsustainable model all around LA, where she runs into yoga instructors, musicians, and fellow writers who, she’s certain, rely on Medicaid for their health care coverage.

Now Potiker is trying to change this model in her role as a communications specialist at LAANE, which works for better jobs and healthier communities. One of her projects is working on the Fair Work Week Los Angeles campaign, which encourages retailers to offer full-time jobs with stable schedules – and health care coverage.

Medical Disaster Pushes Family Out of Work and On Medicaid

Photo by Karen Ducey for Marguerite Casey Foundation’s Equal Voice News.

Philip Donner

Age: 63

Work: Former automotive electrical technician

CHULA VISTA, Calif. – Philip Donner spent 37 years firmly in the nation’s workforce until one day he wasn’t, pushed out, and onto Medicaid, by a series of medical catastrophes.

It all began one summer day three years ago when the award-winning automotive technician thought he was coming down with the stomach flu. It turned out to be a combination of diverticulitis with perforations and an autoimmune disease, and it nearly killed him.

Donner spent the next three months fighting for his life, enduring multiple operations and more than four weeks in a coma. He went into cardiac arrest five separate times.

Three months later, Donner says, his best friend from work visited him in the intensive care unit and told him his manager wanted to talk with him. He learned he would not only lose his job, but his health insurance would stop at the end of the month, even though his condition was only beginning to stabilize, and his medical issues could last the rest of his life.

Over the next six months, Donner moved from the world of private health insurance into California’s Medicaid program, Medi-Cal. But, it wasn’t easy. First, no one told him his new health insurer dropped him five months after he left the hospital. He waited another two months to join Medi-Cal, and even then only succeeded after an advocate from San Diego’s Legal Aid Society intervened.

Finally, Medi-Cal began covering key medical expenses, even for the last two months, Donner didn’t have coverage, including medications that cost thousands of dollars a month that Donner now had no way to pay for. Since he needed help with many daily tasks, including getting dressed and showering, neither he nor his wife Lori could work, which meant they qualified for Medicaid.

Medicaid “was our lifeline. Because if we didn’t have that he couldn’t stay alive,” Lori Donner recalled. “If they cut all of (these) programs from Medicaid, what are we going to do? Are we going to all die? Because there is no other program that (is) going to pick it up.”

Today, Donner, now 63, relies on a patchwork of Medicaid and Medicare, the federal health care program for older Americans, for coverage. Each month, Medicaid alone covers Donner’s heart medicine, for a condition diagnosed during his illness, deductibles for doctors’ visits, home-care medical supplies, and other costs.

“I am saying about $5,200 a month he would have to pay out of pocket if Medi-Cal, Medicaid, wasn’t there,” Lori Donner said. “That is what they would try to stick us with. He would be dead because we wouldn’t have been able to afford that by then.”

Fifty years ago, Medicaid was created largely to cover welfare recipients. Today it often acts like the nets slung below acrobats, catching families that fall. It catches workers like Philip Donner, who are blindsided by a medical catastrophe that robs them temporarily or permanently of the ability to work.

As Congress debates ways to reshape and cut future spending on health care coverage that is often the last resort for families, Philip Donner wonders why.

“It’s ridiculous to cut us first. They always go after the things that will make people cry. They screw the vets. They screw the people who need that help,” Donner said.

Donner understands Medicaid is far from perfect – he has seen its flaws, such as all of the red tape and lack of information, up close – and that it needs a lot of work.

But “it’s a good aid when you need it,” Donner added. “The government helps finance that little drop in the bucket that keeps a lot of people alive.”


Paul Nyhan is Senior Writer for Equal Voice News, Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. This story includes information from The Associated Press. Originally published by Equal Voice News, this report has been edited for length; read the full report here.

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