Carl Hutter returned to Wisconsin from Ecuador with a few hundred pictures and a rash on his arm. At 24, the University of Wisconsin senior has not had health insurance for years, but his rash was bad enough to prompt a visit to the dermatologist. Five months later, after a biopsy and a prescription for medicine he said “doesn’t do anything,” Hutter still has the rash — and an outstanding bill.
“I haven’t paid yet,” Hutter said, impish grin and gleaming eyes camouflaging his deadpan tone. “They keep sending me letters. I should probably do that.”
Kicked off of his parents’ Humana health insurance plan at 18, Hutter is used to weathering occasional storms of sickness without doctor care or prescription medicine. He said he remembers looking up health insurance plans a long time ago and writing them off as impossibilities, knowing his school loans would only cover the barest of basics.
“There’s just no way I could ever afford health insurance,” Hutter said, with a rattling cough that still lingers from a bout of H1N1 flu virus. “I just hope that I get better from whatever I have.”
Hutter’s case is hardly uncommon. UW students have long found themselves in health care limbo upon graduation, thrown from their parents’ health insurance and forced to find their own, most commonly through a job.
But in today’s stringent economy where even experienced professionals are floating between jobs, the market for government and private health care is competitive and costly in ways students may not anticipate.
UW senior Cady Gifford will also lose her health insurance when she graduates in December. She briefly considered buying into her mother’s employer-provided United Health insurance until a representative with the company discouraged it.
“She laughed and said she could look into it, but it’s probably over $400 (a month),” Gifford said.
Gifford, fresh off a week working two jobs and an internship, twirls a strand of hair between her fingers as she hashes out her options. As an environmental studies major, Gifford has thought about applying to the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, both of which offer health coverage. Beyond that, Gifford said, her prospects for health insurance are limited.
“In my field, in order to get experience, you have to do unpaid internships,” Gifford said. “So it’s a lot of part-time work.”
It’s an experience that 2008 UW graduate Joe Silberschmidt can relate to. Silberschmidt guesses he has sent out over 50 job applications since graduation, living with his parents and working odd jobs as a painter and mover in the meanwhile.
“It’s not a good market right now,” Silberschmidt said. “I applied to, I think, five more jobs this morning, and who knows what that brings my total to.”
Silberschmidt said living without health care leaves him constantly on edge. Babysitting for his niece with H1N1 flu, driving the car and even going for a run, he said, pose risks he never thought about while at Madison. While finding a job with health benefits is his first choice, Silberschmidt said he finds himself in a catch-22 as his job search continues into its second year.
“As time rolls by, that just means less and less money in the bank account and less and less desire to spend however many dollars a month paying for health care,” Silberschmidt said.
Until this year, purchasing private health insurance was the only option for Wisconsin adults with no children or employer-provided health care.
However, June 15, 2009, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services opened its BadgerCare Plus Core program to those adults for applications.
The Plus Core program is the first Wisconsin state government health care option for adults with no dependent children, part of Gov. Jim Doyle’s initiative to provide health coverage access to 98 percent of Wisconsin residents.
Applicants, who must make less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, pay a $60 annual application fee — with no monthly premium — for a comprehensive plan that covers everything from doctor and emergency room visits to speech therapy.
“For so many years there’s always this black hole in the middle,” said Sarah Bartz, an economic support supervisor for northern Wisconsin’s Shawano County Department of Social Services. “Basically, people who graduated from college up to the time that they would have children or otherwise be disabled, there was nothing for them.”
At the time of its design three years ago, DHS spokesperson Seth Boffeli said it was estimated that 80,000 Wisconsin residents would be eligible for Plus Core. The program was capped at 54,000 to maintain a cost-neutrality requirement from the federal government.
As the economy nosedived, Boffeli said it was apparent that far more than 80,000 people would become eligible as Wisconsinites lost jobs. The program rapidly ballooned, receiving 76,000 applications and forcing a suspension of Plus Core mere months after it opened.
“What we didn’t know is that we would get five to six hundred people applying seven days a week for three months,” Boffeli said.
On its last open day, Plus Core received hundreds of online applications per hour. A wait list was started for those who did not meet the deadline. Boffeli said there are currently 1,300 people on the waitlist. He estimates it will take months to sift through the 76,000 applications and possibly longer before the Plus Core program is reopened.
“From what I have found out at a supervisor’s forum conference call, they have no idea when this will open back up again,” Bartz said.
Until then, college graduates must find private health insurance or a job.
But that is not to say private companies have nothing to offer. Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Wisconsin released a cost-conscious health insurance option in March 2009 called SmartSense, which offers coverage for premiums “ranging from as little as $46 to $157 per month for a healthy 25-year old male.”
The option, created for students and people between jobs, is more comprehensive than a typical low-cost plan, said Scott Larrivee, ABCBS spokesperson.
“With these plans you can go to see your doctor and it covers preventative services,” Larrivee said. “Sometimes people get just catastrophic plans, so only if they’re in an accident can they get any sort of care. These are much more similar to what people might’ve had through an employer or their parents.”
Hutter, Gifford, Silberschmidt and many like them are left among these ever-shifting options to continue the job search and hope against hope they won’t need what they do not have.
“I’m still young,” Silberschmidt said, reaching for optimism. “I still have that certain sort of immortality that a young 20-something has.”