One in 50 million: Sullivan seeks a job with benefits

Who are the roughly 50 million Americans without health insurance, and why don't they have it? The Missourian gives voice to the stories of Boone County residents who live without the safety net of insurance. This is the story of Michael Sullivan.
Friday, October 16, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 12:12 a.m. CDT, Friday, October 16, 2009

COLUMBIA —Michael Sullivan is a 23-year-old father of one, a college graduate and living without health insurance.

"I just can't afford it at the moment," Sullivan said, still in his Sonic work uniform after a recent Saturday shift. "I work all I can just to pay the bills I have."

Sullivan graduated from Linn State Technical College in 2007 with a major in photonics and optics and with hopes of finding a research job out West with good benefits, including comprehensive health insurance. But with the faltering job market and the recent birth of his son, that plan has been set aside for more immediate concerns.

"The economy wasn't doing well, and a lot of people I knew that had graduated moved out to California and Arizona and places to get jobs," Sullivan said. "They landed good jobs but six months later they got cut back, so they just moved and got stuck there in a 12-month lease with no job.

"After they all got let go, I decided to stick around because with a new son I needed job security," he said.

A U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report released in September said unemployment in Missouri increased 3.3 percentage points from Aug. 2008 to Aug. 2009, to 9.5 percent from 6.2 percent. 

Sullivan and his girlfriend are raising their son together in the same home, he said, and marriage is something they are working toward.  He has been helping support his son on the wages he earns from Sonic, but he says it has not been enough to cover his infant son's medical expenses.

Applying for Medicaid, he said, was necessary.

"If I didn't have Medicaid for him, that would be terrible," he said. "I'd be paying all of those bills out of pocket, and I wouldn't be able to keep up with them."

Calls to Sonic spokespersons regarding health coverage options available to employees were not returned.

Sullivan's son is one of the roughly 59 million Americans enrolled in Medicaid, but Sullivan sees that as a temporary solution.

"I just ... feel the personal need to be able to take care of my own family," he said.

Sullivan added that this personal need "is probably one of the biggest incentives right now" to obtain health insurance.

Though he smokes, Sullivan tells himself he's young and healthy, but he knows that's a rationalization.

"I like to tell myself that to feel better about not having personal health insurance right now," he said. "Because I've been injured and health insurance was able to cover me."

He's had a broken arm, a knife cut to the finger that hit bone, and perhaps most notably, a spine injury.

"I'd been in a car wreck and it twisted my spine, not bad enough that I needed surgery," he said. "But my disks would slip and pinch my sciatic nerve on my left side."

At the time, he was still in college and covered by his parents' employer-based plan.

"There were a couple of times where (health insurance) definitely saved me," he said.

The insurance covered the emergency room bill, the shots to relieve the muscle spasms in his back and the specialist who saw him afterward. 

Memories like these, and seeing his uninsured friends get stuck with emergency room bills costing thousands of dollars, has made getting coverage for him and his family a priority.

"Because there's no telling when something like that is going to happen to you, and it does happen," he said.

That's why when he searches for a new job, he'll be looking for an employer who can offer him and his family medical benefits.

"From what I can tell, the cheapest and best way to keep health insurance is through your job," he said. "I'm just trying to find the job with better benefits ... Getting myself into one of those companies is the hard part."

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