Unemployment weighs on health care debate

September 23, 2009 6:57:28 PM PDT
The high cost of health insurance coupled with the growing rate of unemployment means the number of uninsured Americans is climbing. In the Bay Area, it is hovering around 10-12 percent. These numbers will be a factor in the national debate over health care reform.

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"One day I had health care, next day I had nothing," former bank security analyst Wendy Niehuis said.

Niehuis lost her job and her health insurance eight months ago when Washington Mutual closed its doors.

Even if she finds a job, there is no guarantee she will get health insurance again.

"It's a luxury to even find a contract that's temporary to permanent when after 90 days you might have health care if they keep you on," Niehuis said.

The U.S. census data for 2008 shows a rising number of uninsured. In Bay Area counties, it is highest in Alameda County at 12 percent; San Francisco's 10 percent is the lowest.

"Our ER doctors see tens of thousands of people each year who don't really have emergencies, but are sick and have no place to go," Dr. Sang-Ick Chang said.

Chang heads the Alameda County Medical Center. He and other county health care providers and elected officials spoke Wednesday on the need for national health care reform.

Oakland's La Clinica de la Raza was their backdrop. The public health clinic had a waiting list of 300 uninsured families three months ago; today that number has skyrocketed to more than 700 families.

Rich Daly also supports health reform but he does not want it to fall on the back of small businesses. Daly says providing employee health coverage at his San Jose pizzeria would break him because of the rising costs of doing business.

"Your lease, how much you're paying in rent, labor, you know, rising food costs," Daly said.

The Santa Clara Chamber of Commerce is also concerned about rising health insurance costs.

"It's gone up about 138 percent over the last five to ten years, so that's a big percentage," Santa Clara Chamber of Commerce spokesperson Steve Van Dorn said.

The government says the numbers of uninsured are likely to increase in the next census, largely because of rising unemployment and the erosion of employer paid coverage.

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