Fighting a preexisting condition: greed

Growing old, particularly in this economy, is not for sissies. Just ask Bob and Roselee Packham of Santa Monica.

Bob, 63, recently lost his job with a company that does audiovisual work at conferences and meetings. That left them with the small salary Roselee, also 63, earns in a part-time position at their synagogue. Bob continues his search for work.

Light a candle for them and others like them, if you’re so inclined.

Not that the Packhams are broke, or anywhere near the edge of the cliff. That’s what’s so scary about this recession. As usual, the poorest among us are taking the biggest hit, but this one is hammering the solidly middle class as well.

In the case of the Packhams, they’re dipping into the nest egg they built for retirement to pay the mortgage on their town house, and what’s more, they are trapped in our nation’s enduring, made-in-America hell of medical insurance lunacy.

You know the hell I’m talking about -- the one in which you find your blurred vision further clouded by the language of COBRA, which will cost one or more limbs but might keep you covered until you find your next job, where of course you’ll be denied healthcare insurance because you had asthma in eighth grade.

What, you’ve got a minor case of Crohn’s disease, and you expect our company to insure you?

That’s what Roselee ran into with the AARP insurance program.

Hey, wait a minute. Wasn’t that the American Association of Retired Persons? If anybody would understand the health insurance needs of people in the September of their lives, wouldn’t it be the AARP?

“I had breast cancer,” said Roselee, but that wasn’t the hang-up. It was the Crohn’s, despite the fact that she has a mild, effectively managed case of the inflammatory disease of the intestines.

So when Bob lost his job in October, they signed up for COBRA, the program that temporarily allows continued group coverage for people who lose their jobs. But the premiums are punishing and the coverage minimal, so they’re watching closely and with rising blood pressure as the healthcare reform debate plays out in Washington.

Before I went to visit the Packhams, I got a letter from Bob that laid out his beef and his call for Congress to “make healthcare more reasonable for both patients and the medical industry and less of a gold mine for [the] medical insurance industry.”

Bob wrote:

“During 2009, my medical insurance company will pocket approximately $975 a month from me and my wife,” as well as from his former employer, which bills a temporary federal program for two-thirds of that $975 COBRA payment for Bob and Roselee’s extended coverage.

“That’s $11,700 a year for a plan with a $9,800 deductible. As December begins, I have not yet hit the deductible,” wrote Bob. He and his wife have been pretty healthy, but they’re still paying out co-pays and prescription costs, in addition to the COBRA payments. So for the year, Bob and Roselee’s medical coverage will have cost $20,000, and their insurance company will have paid “exactly $00.00 in benefits.”

The $20,000, Bob said, “is more than I will pay for my mortgage, more than I paid last year in federal and state income taxes, more than groceries, auto insurance, religious dues. In fact, it is the most expensive item in my budget.”

Bear with him for a moment, because Bob’s got just a bit more to unload.

“I understand that for 2010, the insurance company is going to increase the premium to over $1,100 per month. For that kind of money, I could lease two Cadillacs and have money left over for the gas.”

Yes, he’s a little worked up, and understandably so.

The Packhams, like so many others who’ve been knocked around by this economy, never imagined they’d be hanging by their fingernails to the bottom rungs of the middle class. Fortunately they’re not carrying much debt, and Bob thinks the economy will pick up in January and he’ll find work.

Or so he says.

It’s called denial, said Roselee, and Bob had to agree.

“I’m scared,” Roselee admitted at her kitchen table, wondering what they’ll have to give up and how they’ll get by if things don’t turn around soon.

They’re scared -- and angry too -- at how crippling healthcare costs can be, even if you’re not sick. And yet the bickering bozos with the best health insurance in the land haven’t been able to rise above special interests and partisan politics and deliver a reform package that doesn’t cripple American families.

The Packhams count themselves lucky their two adult children are off the payroll, and Roselee’s dad lives with them, kicking $500 a month into the family kitty. Roselee started collecting Social Security a bit on the early side, and even if Bob keeps striking out on the job market, the Packhams think they can scrape by until they turn 65 and switch to Medicare.

Last week, their spirits lifted when lawmakers floated proposals to lower the Medicare eligibility age to 55 in some cases and to replace the dead-on-arrival public option with a nonprofit option.

“My doctor said that back in the day when medical insurance was more nonprofit-based, more of the money went to patient care,” said Bob.

As for changing the Medicare eligibility age to 55, Bob said it sounds good. But he wants more details on the cost, and he fears that even if it adds up, he may be close to 65 before the change kicks in.

Any system, though, that puts more money into patient care and less into corporate profit will make Bob healthier and happier.

“I believe that most of the money I have paid to the medical insurance company is profit,” he wrote me in his e-mail, a small masterpiece of moral indignation.

“I believe that some of that profit is used to lobby our Congress and to stir up the public with TV advertising, radio blowhards and political action in order to perpetuate this outrageous financial scheme which so enriches them.”

I think I’ve got a solution to Bob’s unemployment problem:

Bob for Congress.