Economy drives up poverty in county

Census data show more residents also lost access to health insurance

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

Published:

 

More Clark County residents slipped into poverty and lost access to health insurance between 2009 and 2010, the fallout from persistent unemployment since 2007, according to new county-level data released by the Census Bureau.

“If you’re a lower-income person above the poverty line, and you lose your job, there’s a large chance you’re going to fall below the poverty line,” said Scott Bailey, regional economist for the Washington Employment Security Department.

About 12.6 percent of county residents were in poverty in 2010, compared with 11.8 percent in 2009.

Poverty level varies according to the size of a family. For a family of four, it’s an annual income of $22,350 or less.

Meanwhile, about 13.4 percent of county residents lacked health insurance in 2010, compared with 12.8 percent in 2009.

The county trend follows the pattern of the nation, where there was a record gap in income between the rich and the poor, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The bureau released national and state figures on uninsured Americans and those in poverty in mid-September, but the release of some county-level figures from the American Community Survey were delayed until last week.

The number of county residents in poverty and those without insurance have inched up each year since the recession began in December 2007. The county’s poverty rate was 9.6 percent in 2007. The median household income was $58,116 at that time. That had declined to $54,924 in 2010.

Bill Coleman, board member at the Clark County Food Bank, said the food bank has seen demand for emergency food boxes increase in tandem with unemployment and poverty.

Between 2006-07 and 2010-2011, the number of food boxes increased from 91,000 to 113,000, growth of 24.2 percent.

“Unemployment and poverty have been increasing the number of food boxes we’ve been distributing,” Coleman said. “The only way we can measure demand is requests for food boxes.”

The county’s unemployment rate of 12.3 percent is higher than the national average of 9 percent. However, the county’s poverty rate is lower than the national average of 15.1 percent. Joblessness has been the biggest driver of the increasing rate of uninsured Americans, but employers that don’t offer health insurance and the climbing cost of insurance have also had an impact.

Insurance woes

Vancouver resident Monique Hancuff said she doesn’t receive health insurance through her job at a coffee bar. She used to be covered by her parents’ health insurance but became ineligible under her parents’ plan when she married in January. Her husband recently found a job that will offer health insurance after 90 days on the job, but the couple is uncertain if they can afford to add Hancuff to his plan.

“It worries me, especially having an active lifestyle,” Hancuff said. “What am I going to do if anything happens? What if I want to have a baby? It worries me, but for now, I am putting it at the back of my mind.”

Orchards resident Leslie Pasa said she couldn’t afford insurance when she operated a home-based child care center and, hence, couldn’t afford treatment for her high blood pressure. In May, Pasa had a stroke. She said she had to wait more than three months to receive any physical or speech therapy after she was approved for Medicaid coverage due to disabilities arising from her stroke. She still has difficulty speaking.

“I have to have my husband help me get dressed,” she said. “Sometimes, I fall a lot, mainly because I couldn’t afford to get my blood pressure under control because I didn’t have health insurance.”

Financial hardships and loss of access to health insurance have fueled the number of charity cases local hospitals see and also are likely a contributor to increasing unpaid debt to hospitals.

Charity cases and delinquent hospital bills at Vancouver’s PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center have climbed more than 80 percent since the recession began in December 2007. Charity cases increased from $23.4 million in 2007 to $42.5 million in 2010, said Kenneth Cole, PeaceHealth Southwest communication manager. Bad debt rose from $26.2 million in 2007 to $48.5 million in 2010.

“We believe our current economic downturn and the relatively high number of unemployed people in our community has a direct impact on the overall hardships numbers, both in terms of charity care and bad debt cases,” Cole said.

Those cases also drive up the cost of medical care for people who have insurance, he said.

Vancouver resident Renee Soasey said the deductible under her husband’s employer plan went from $1,500 to $3,000 this year.

“That includes prescriptions,” Soasey said. “I’m very hot about it. That’s health insurance for working Americans.”

Soasey said before the deductible was fulfilled, her glaucoma eye drops cost $150; after insurance kicked in, the same product cost $8.

“You know pharmaceutical companies are making a profit off $8,” Soasey said. “We need to change the system in this country to stop the greed and profit mongering.”

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://www.twitter.com/Col_Trends; http://www.facebook.com/ColTrends; paris.achen@columbian.com.