As a New Orleans native who lived through Hurricane Katrina, my sympathies immediately went out to those who felt helpless while watching their homes being engulfed in flames in the last few weeks. The wise words from my colleague’s blog post last week reminded me about how incredibly difficult situations have a silver lining—the sense of community that surfaces. The images we’ve seen of the firefighters working around the clock in intense heat and in dangerous conditions fill our hearts with pride and gratitude to be a part of a community willing to sacrifice their lives and their health for us.
The trouble is that once the immediate danger recedes, the lives and health of these men and women are still at risk. Unfortunately, most of those firefighters are likely to face prolonged health issues, such as chronic respiratory conditions, and are also likely to face those physical threats without health coverage.
The federal Wildland Fire Service Association estimates that 40% of federal firefighters are part-time workers who do not qualify for benefits, even though the hours they work in 6 months are equivalent to a full-time worker in a year. A related Washington Post article shares the stories of some of those firefighters facing difficulties in paying medical bills without insurance. One is facing $70,000 in outstanding medical bills due to a premature birth of his newborn son. Another declined purchasing an individual plan in Colorado, due to its high annual costs of $2,777. Their salaries range from $25,000 to $35,000 a year, which makes it difficult to afford individual plans. The only other option they have is to depend on their spouse’s insurance, if they have one, and if the family can afford to pay their share of the coverage.
It’s not just the firefighters, though—another group of people who have put their lives and health on the line for the safety of others are members of our military. In Colorado, we have 24,000 uninsured veterans (PDF), and an additional 17,000 uninsured family members of veterans. Although the Department of Veteran Affairs provides health care for many veterans, others are unable to utilize their services due to eligibility, proximity, or cost-sharing reasons. Nationwide, over 21% of veterans are earning less than 139% of the Federal Poverty Level, which would make purchasing individual coverage or even affording co-pays cost-prohibitive.
Communities are powerful only if we all look out for one another. Certainly those who have put their lives at risk for low pay and little or no health coverage deserve our support when they get sick or injured. If they chose to take on these jobs, it is because they want to look out for the safety and security of the community, so it is up to us to do our part in ensuring their safety and security.