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TONY COX, host:

This is News & Notes. I'm Tony Cox. On Tuesday, as part of his wide-ranging speech to a joint session of Congress, President Obama put forward his vision for health-care reform in the United States, but not before he outlined the true cost to Americans under the current system.

(Soundbite of speech)

President BARACK OBAMA: In the last eight years, premiums have grown four times faster than wages. And in each of these years, one million more Americans have lost their health insurance. It is one of the major reasons why small businesses close their doors and corporations ship jobs overseas, and it is one of the largest and fastest growing parts of our budget. Given these facts, we can no longer afford to put health-care reform on hold.

COX: In a few moments, we'll discuss President Obama's health policy ideas. But first, just what does it mean to be one of the thousands of Americans living without health insurance? Joining me now is Jesse Alexander. He was laid off from his job just over a year ago and now pays $1,300 every month for health insurance for himself and for his wife. Jesse, welcome to News & Notes.

Mr. JESSE ALEXANDER: Thank you. I appreciate it.

COX: Well, you were laid off a year ago, as we said, and as a result, you now have health coverage under COBRA, which offers you the chance to continue the same health coverage that you received under your employer, but you pay out of your own pocket. How has this worked out for you?

Mr. ALEXANDER: Well, it's not working out very well. It's quite expensive. I just have to correct the figure there. It's actually $1,140. It's pretty onerous. It's difficult.

COX: How does it impact your household finances otherwise?

Mr. ALEXANDER: Well, it's almost - it's just about, oh, $600 shy of - six or seven hundred dollars shy of our mortgage. So, we - it's pretty rough. It's basically paying - our finances are basically paying the mortgage and the health insurance.

COX: Did you ever consider going without it - the risk of going without insurance because of the cost?

Mr. ALEXANDER: We did. But for us, it's really not an option. We are on maintenance medication because of what the industry calls pre-existing conditions, so we just really don't have that alternative. It has to be either through COBRA or through some other private insurance.

COX: Now, even though you're covered, what would happen financially to you if you had a medical emergency?

Mr. ALEXANDER: I really don't want to think about it. It would really be rough. We would really - we would probably be in danger of losing our house.

COX: Now, you've heard, I'm assuming, the president talk about health-care reform. What does it mean to you when you hear the possibility of reform and what particularly would you like to see that would help benefit you and your wife?

Mr. ALEXANDER: What I would like to see - well, it means a lot that health care is front and center, and I'm glad that the president is talking about it. But I must say that we need, in my view, to restructure the entire program. I think we need to be talking about universal health care, and in the form of single payer because as long as the insurance companies are in the absolute center of this thing, I don't think this situation is going to change much.

COX: My final question is this. What happens to you when your COBRA runs out?

Mr. ALEXANDER: Well, Maryland has a program called MHIP, Maryland Health Insurance Program, and we will automatically qualify for that. The coverage will be considerably reduced, but at least we'll have coverage for the prescriptions for the maintenance medications. That's going to be our final - sort of our place of last resort. We're also exploring options like bartering with our doctor and maybe paying in cash for some services and seeing if we can leverage alternative care in some way that would keep cost down.

COX: Jesse, thank you very much, and good luck to you and your wife.

Mr. ALEXANDER: Thank you, sir. I appreciate the time.

COX: That was Jesse Alexander. He was laid off last year and now pays just over $1,100 a month for COBRA health coverage for himself and for his wife. That monthly premium is just between $600 and $700 less than his mortgage payment.

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