Boomers Struggling to Stay Afloat

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Their retirement dreams gone, a growing number of local baby boomers are simply trying to survive as jobs, money and health insurance disappear

The roll call of Myra Kohanyi pierced the clamor of another exhausting night at the Westminster Free Clinic, as she plowed through a list of 150 people awaiting treatment at what has become a triage center for Ventura County’s uninsured.

Those who answered the 5-foot-tall clinic coordinator with a much larger voice were familiar profiles in the healthcare debate: immigrants who have few other options, 20-somethings yet to find a job with insurance, and the poorest of the county’s poor.

Then Kohanyi called: "Tony Griffith! … Tony Griffith!"

The 51-year-old contractor never imagined himself at this volunteer MASH unit erected weekly amid stained glass at the United Methodist Church of Thousand Oaks. He once earned $80,000 annually, he and his wife were in good health, and a $465-a-month policy covered them both.

But prosperity ended for Griffith, as it has for thousands of Ventura County’s baby boomers, when jobs hemorrhaged even from here, one of the wealthiest counties in California. Health coverage became a luxury instead of the norm.

At a time when they expected to plan comfortable retirements and fulfill the role of family breadwinner, the baby boomers of Ventura County are trapped in a harsh convergence of the healthcare crisis and recession. From managers who commanded six-figure salaries, to receptionists earning $40,000 a year, they have become financially vulnerable just as the illnesses that arrive with middle age have stripped away their notions of invincibility.

"I don’t have much choice. I have to come here and swallow my pride," said Griffith, who has lost his work, health plan, and house in the past year. He now suffers chronic neck and back pain from an incident at one of his final job sites, owes $20,000 in medical testing and emergency room visits for him and his wife, and rents a room in Thousand Oaks smaller than his former garage.

"This is our date night, hanging out at the clinic," Griffith said, motioning toward his wife, Guadalupe, 28, whose tests revealed a cluster of ovarian cysts. The cysts were discovered after Griffith rushed her to the emergency room in pain two years ago. A doctor told him she now needs a $40,000 operation for removal.

The new healthcare reform law is establishing a shaky bridge of immediate relief measures for boomers and promises sweeping help in 2014. But meanwhile, their last employable years are slipping away and they are finding the safety net they paid into during better days was not designed to help them.

"They’re caught in the middle. They’re not eligible for Medicare for senior citizens, and they’re typically not eligible for Medi-Cal that goes to parents with younger children," said Lisa Safaeinili, executive director of the Westminster clinic, which saw its first surge in boomer clients during the mortgage crisis.

"They are facing depression, anxiety, and in some cases they are angry that they must now seek care at places they never thought they’d need," she said.

Baby boomers are defined by the census as people ages 46 to 64. Most agencies keep statistics that slightly vary from that window, but the picture is clear.

According to figures provided by the Ventura County Health Care Agency, uninsured patients ages 45 to 64 have nearly doubled at county hospitals and clinics since 2005. That year, they numbered 4,832. In 2009, the most recent year available, their ranks had grown to 9,060, the largest age group of uninsured patients.

The county figures do not include people who simply neglect their medical needs, or patients who use free clinics, which typically receive no public funds.

The Free Clinic of Simi Valley reports that clients ages 46 to 65 have become a full quarter of all patients in 2010, up from 9 percent in 2006.

The Conejo Free Clinic, which began keeping statistics last year, said patients 45 to 64 have become 41 percent of their clients in 2010, up from 27 percent in 2009.

While the Westminster Free Clinic does not keep figures for the boomer age group, patients 20 to 61 have increased 98 percent from 2005 to 2009. Westminster administrators tracked another trend: Whites grew to 27 percent of patients in the age group last year, up from 8 percent of patients in the group in 2005.

"For us to have an exponential increase in Caucasian patients is very noticeable, because they are usually white-collar workers, often with a higher level of education and income," Safaeinili said.

Meanwhile in California, the unemployment rate for baby boomers 50 to 64 has more than doubled in half a decade, climbing from 3.8 percent in 2005, to 8.7 percent in 2009.

Unemployment rates are not kept for age groups at the county level because the statistical samples are too small, said Patrick Joyce, spokesman for the state economic development department. But Professor Bill Watkins of the Center for Economic Research and Forecasting at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks said the rate for local boomers is likely in the double digits.

"I see financial sectors being hit really hard and people in higher education losing jobs," he said. "In Ventura County, we’ve seen businesses leave, plenty of them."

Beyond the statistics, there are the worries and canceled plans of couples like Lawrence Hutton, 58, and his wife Chong, 59. He wanted to work four more years, bringing home $110,000 a year, plus bonuses, as an engineering manager. Then they would hop on the $18,000 motorcycle they bought five years ago.

In sort of a gray-haired sequel to "Easy Rider," they’d visit every national park they could.

Now the Honda Gold Wing, with the GPS system and the intercom, is for sale. And when Lawrence Hutton hears a crash in the bathroom, he worries that Chong has fallen in the shower.

"And you hate to say it, the next thing that comes into your mind is, ‘How much is this going to cost? My God, how much is this going to cost?’" he said.

In December 2008, two months shy of his 20th anniversary at Kavlico Engineering & Manufacturing in Moorpark and the trip to Hawaii to celebrate it, Hutton was "downsized right out the door." An Air Force veteran who met his wife 34 years ago while stationed in South Korea, he’s covered by Veterans Affairs. Chong is not.

Chong Hutton is healthy. But he’s not. He has a neurological disorder that has worsened recently, causing numbness throughout his body. He doesn’t have to pay for care but even if he were offered a job, he probably couldn’t do it.

The Oxnard couple doesn’t go out anymore, or buy things. While she tills their garden, she doesn’t climb on ladders, stools, chairs or anything that could bring an accident. Chong Hutton does go to church four times a week.

"Just give me my health," she prays. It’s a timely request for all boomers.

Higher Risk, Higher Rates

Data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that in 2008 Californians 45 to 64 were nearly five times more likely to have diabetes than people 18 to 44. According to the National Cancer Institute, people 50 and older were nearly 15 times as likely to contract cancer than people younger than 50.

The increased risk causes insurance rates to leap. The least expensive plan available, with a $5,000 deductible, costs a 45-year-old person $89 a month in premiums, according to Chuck Rosen, a Simi Valley insurance agent. The cost rises to $206 a month by the time a boomer reaches 64.

A stronger plan that covers dental and everything else costs $684 a month at the age of 45 and can climb to four figures within a decade.

"One thousand dollars a month is not uncommon for people in their 50s," said Jerry Flanagan, a health advocate for the Consumer Watchdog group in Santa Monica. "Insurance companies charge more based on your age and they charge more based on health conditions. All of those add up."

Karen Schneweis-Schmidt, chief operations officer for billing at the county health care agency, said many low-income boomers were once covered by Medi-Cal but lost the benefits when their children turned 18. Now, they are holding on by their fingernails for the Medicare they are slated to receive at 65, but there is no guarantee they will receive the benefits of previous retirees.

According to a report in June 2009 by the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, the official Medicare advisory board to Congress, the trust fund that pays for hospital care among recipients will be insolvent by 2017 unless taxes are raised, or benefits are reduced.

In Ventura, there is an overload of Medicare applicants on the horizon. According to the Ventura County Area Agency on Aging, 19 percent of the county population will be 60 and older by the end of this year. By 2030, 29 percent of the population will have reached 60.

A Life of Dialysis

Mark Duenas, 53, receives government health benefits now. But to qualify, he must plug into a dialysis machine three times a week, three hours each session. Because the treatment is life-sustaining, it is covered by Medicaid.

Duenas had put off regular checkups since 2007, after losing the insurance provided by a $96,000-a-year job as a computer systems salesman. But he went to the Free Clinic of Simi Valley just in time last January.

Blood tests provided by the clinic revealed nephrotic syndrome, kidney damage, which runs in his family. He was taken to an emergency room, and told he could have died within two weeks.

"Being middle class, I had to get over the stigma of going to a free clinic," he said. "Now I owe them my life."

He had already lost his $1,300-a-month apartment, and the illness spurred him to move in with his mother and stepfather in Simi Valley so they could help him navigate the new realities that come with dialysis.

His body is still adjusting to the dizziness, fatigue and five pounds of weight loss that can come with each session. So his mother, Estella Botello, drove him recently to what has become a second home: the Kidney Center of Simi Valley.

Duenas was still a picture of relative health among the men and women who sat gaunt and weary at some of the 15 dialysis machines at the center. They are blood-cleansing machines with tubes, plastic tanks and a metal arm that holds a portable TV in front of the patient.

As his blood flowed through a catheter, causing it to turn a shade darker than his burgundy shirt, Duenas said he was grateful for the government assistance he could accept the rest of his life.

But he does not want to live off government help, or become as bitter as some of the dialysis long-timers, one of whom describes the center staff as "vampires."

"That place is very depressing," Duenas said later, planning the recovery diet he must now follow to maintain a healthy weight. "I just try to look straight forward and watch TV and kill the three hours. I just want a normal life."

Help May Come in 2014

Because he has no other disorders, he is a good candidate for a kidney transplant. The only problem is, though the government will pay $12,000 a month indefinitely for his dialysis sessions, it will cover the medication his body needs to accept a kidney transplant for only three years.

Duenas would need the medicine his entire life, but it would cost a relatively cheap $1,500 a month.

He is the type of patient the healthcare overhaul is designed to help. Insurance companies can no longer deny him coverage because of his pre-existing condition. By the time larger 2014 measures are in place, Duenas should be able to take advantage of reduced private insurance rates if he is able to find a job after a transplant.

There is also separate legislation proposed by an Illinois lawmaker, stalled in Congress for three years now, to provide lifetime medication payments to transplant recipients.

Duenas has already done his part, beginning the long application process for the organ. But it can take as long as eight years to receive one, depending on the outcome of doctors’ exams scheduled for late May to determine his body’s ability to accept the kidney.

Ironically, before his diagnosis, he used his layoff to become a licensed phlebotomist, a medical technician who draws blood. Still, the likely scenario is he searches for a new job in the field in his 60s, competing with eager 20-somethings who seem to be preferred by the potential employers he has already surveyed.

"Right now, I try not to think of the future too much. I have the immediate. From Tuesday until Thursday I lost 10 pounds," he said. "My mom jokes and says, ‘I wish I could plug in’" to the dialysis machine as a diet.

"I joke about it too. Then I say: ‘No you don’t.’"

As Duenas tries to become well enough to work, Tony Griffith said he was fortunate that he still can.

He is out looking for jobs in construction every day, but they have not been there. He has become a handyman, using word-of-mouth to find jobs painting, cleaning, or replacing broken floor tiles. He has earned less than $5,000 so far this year.

"It buries us," he said of his simultaneous loss of steady work and healthcare. "I try to come up with money to eat with and pay for gas so I can keep looking for work. Then I try to spend time with my wife, and make sure she is cared for.

"I do it on my own, because nothing else will help us out."

With California HealthCare Foundation Center for Health Reporting

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