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A Self-Employed Family's Quest For Insurance

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A Self-Employed Family's Quest For Insurance

Health Care

A Self-Employed Family's Quest For Insurance

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The long debate over health insurance has highlighted what people who are self-employed know well: When you don't have health insurance tied to your job, it can be a lot harder to find, and it can be expensive.

NPR's David Schaper has the latest in our series, Are You Covered? He introduces us to a suburban Chicago family that buys its own insurance.

(Soundbite of banging)

DAVID SCHAPER: Fifteen-year-old Evan Fisher is racing down the sidewalk on rollerblades in front of his home in Oak Park, a suburb just west of Chicago, and he's jumping up on to a homemade rail. Evan explains the sport called aggressive skating, which is similar to skateboarding.

Mr. EVAN FISHER: You take some part of your skates and you slide it across a rail or a ledge or some object, and you do this, like, while you're moving. So you gain speed, and then you slide across it.

SCHAPER: Evan admits aggressive skating can be dangerous, and that he should wear pads more often. After all, perfecting new moves is done by trial and error and occasionally crashing.

(Soundbite of banging)

Mr. FISHER: Whoa.

Ms. CINDY RICHARDS: Well, I'm proud of what he does, and he works really, really hard at it.

SCHAPER: Cindy Richards is Evan's mother.

Ms. RICHARDS: But I wish he would wear pads. I wish he would wear a helmet. I wish he had a safer sport.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SCHAPER: Cindy's worries are well-founded. Last summer, while skating near his high school a few blocks away, Evan tried a trick on a railing on some stairs and fell hard. Even though he was wearing pads, he broke his arm badly.

Ms. RICHARDS: I got to the emergency room and they took the air cast off of it and I looked at it and I burst into tears. And he said, why are you crying, Mom? It's my arm. And I said, because it's your arm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SCHAPER: Evan's arm healed, but there was something else that almost made this mom cry again: the bills.

Ms. RICHARDS: There's one for 315. There's one for $95. There's one to the orthopedist for 607.

SCHAPER: The ambulance, emergency and doctor's bills added up to nearly $4,000, and Richards had to pay it all out of pocket. She's a self-employed writer and editor who buys her own insurance. Her policy has a high deductible of $5,200 each year.

Richards' husband Scott is a self-employed carpenter. She says they, Evan and 13-year-old Tess are pretty healthy. They don't go to the doctor very often. But after Evan broke his arm and she realized they were close to hitting the deductible for the first time, she rushed to the doctor for all kinds of things they'd been putting off.

Ms. RICHARDS: I got a mammogram. I got a colonoscopy. I went in for my annual physical. I took the kids in for annual physicals, and it got paid for. And that was a really nice feeling.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SCHAPER: Richards calls this self-rationing of healthcare. She doesn't skimp on taking the kids to the doctor, but she does pick and choose what kinds of examinations she gets based in part on what she can afford that year. Richards left her job as a writer for the Chicago Tribune 10 years ago to work as a freelancer. She went on COBRA for 18 months, and after that expired, she joined a writers union for its health care coverage. She paid $1,200 a month, but after three years, Richards said the union plan went bankrupt without paying any of her bills. Still unable to find any other coverage, out of desperation, Cindy says she bought a temporary plan.

Ms. RICHARDS: Because we really needed emergency care. My husband's a carpenter, and if he cuts off a finger at work, you'd be talking thousands and thousands of dollars in health insurance - in health care costs.

SCHAPER: Richards says the temporary plan wasn't too expensive, about $600 a month.

Ms. RICHARDS: But it covered nothing.

SCHAPER: Richards then took a part-time job as a magazine editor, mostly because it offered health insurance. But after four years, she struck out on her own again.

Ms. RICHARDS: When I was looking for this insurance, there were many days when I got no work done. And if I don't work, I don't get paid. Being on the phone with insurance companies, being on the computer trying to research things, it was all-encompassing. And the fear of having no insurance can be quite paralyzing.

SCHAPER: Through a friend, Cindy Richards finally found a broker who was able to get her health insurance, but her husband Scott takes antidepressants and his preexisting condition forced them to buy two separate plans that together cost them more than $500 a month, and both have $5,200 deductibles. Cindy's and Scott's income can vary quite a bit year to year and ranges from about 50 to $120,000 a year, meaning their health care costs could eat up 10 to 20 percent of their income.

As a journalist, Cindy Richards covered health care policy for 15 years. But when she started working for herself, Richards says she was shocked at just how difficult it was to find and buy her own insurance, and she still is not without nagging questions about her health care future.

Ms. RICHARDS: What if I lose the policy is a big one. Finding this policy was a huge deal for me. Being able to have my entire family covered was a huge weight off my mind. The idea that we might get sick and they might cancel us, just like if you have a bad car accident, the auto insurance company will cancel you, the idea that that could happen to our health insurance is really terrifying, because what are you supposed to do then?

SCHAPER: For now, Cindy Richards is just relieved her family has any coverage at all.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

MONTAGNE: Our series on health insurance in America, Are You Covered, is produced in partnership with Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit news service. Explore the whole series at NPR.org.

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