Living the Recession: Broken Dreams for Middle-Class Families

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"We Have to Go Without Medical Care"

Two years ago Keith and Cheryl Johnson's life in Falmouth, Maine, was as serene as the view over the town's boat-filled harbor. "It was a nice life," says Cheryl, 52, "not a lot of worries." Keith, also 52, a trucker, and Cheryl, a real-estate agent and appraiser, had a combined annual income of $76,000 -- enough for them to live in a nice neighborhood with good public schools for their 13-year-old daughter, Rachel.

In June 2007 the life they had built for themselves began to unravel. Keith ruptured several spinal disks in a work-related accident and could no longer sit for long drives. Then in March 2009 his company downsized and he was laid off. His employer had provided the family's health insurance and they were shocked to learn that it would cost $1,564 a month to buy COBRA coverage for all of them, a figure much more than their budget could absorb.

There really was no choice, though. Keith needed insurance to pay for the back surgery he was scheduled for, as well as for his diabetes and hypertension medications. The family decided to continue insurance -- for $564 a month -- for him only. By this time the real-estate market had taken a hit and Cheryl had less work and less income. "What's more important -- your health or food for your family?" Keith asks in frustration about their impossible situation.

With no insurance for her or her daughter, Cheryl was forced to forgo the anti-anxiety medication she'd been on since Keith's accident and had to pray for Rachel's continued good health. Then came more bad news: Cheryl's job was being eliminated.

On her last day of work Cheryl felt something pop while she ate. Three days later her face was red and swollen and her right eye drooped. At the emergency room she was diagnosed with cellulitis, a bacterial infection that can be disabling or fatal if untreated. She was put on antibiotics and told to see a dental surgeon in three days.

The infection cleared up quickly, but there was no money for the surgery. That reality, along with the bleak job outlook and their growing debt, prompted a decision the Johnsons had hoped to avoid. They left Maine and moved in with Cheryl's widowed mother in Ohio. The move was supposed to make their lives less stressful by saving money, but it has had the opposite effect on Keith, who worries about starting over with new doctors. He is hoping to settle a workers' compensation claim so he can be retrained in a field that doesn't require extended sitting.

Cheryl's prospects look brighter. She heard that a local real-estate appraiser might be hiring soon. On the job application, where it asked about which types of insurance might interest her, Cheryl checked every box. "Dental, vision, disability, I don't care what's left over money wise," she says. "I'm starved for coverage. If I could I would stand on the highway with a sign that says 'Will work for insurance.'"

Continued on page 4:  "The Military Was Our Best Option"


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