Health reform: it’s about having each other’s back

Health reform: it’s having each other’s back

Obamacare-related increase in price of Papa John's pizza ? 11 cents. Ensuring working Americans have a health care safety net? Priceless.

August 17, 2012

My alternator died on Monday night, and my car went comatose in the middle of Chicago’s Dan Ryan expressway at rush hour. It wasn’t my favorite experience, being honked at while waiting interminably in the rain for a tow.

Yet the Lord works in mysterious ways to remind us of our blessings. A gentleman from the Illinois Department of Transportation pushed my car into a safe location. He then kept discreet watch for almost two hours until the tow truck arrived.

The arriving tow truck driver happened to have graduated from a tough Chicago high school where I helped to field a violence prevention intervention last year. Maybe 28 years old, he works a grueling all-night towing shift to support his fiancé and two children. When he gets home in the morning, he hands his young son a few bucks and some change for the piggy bank. His son calls out: “Look Mommy, Daddy brought us home some money!”

I needed a 20-mile tow, which cost me $60. We talked along the way. Like most people in his profession, he’s uninsured. A crude but useful internet survey finds that only 39 percent of tow truck drivers get medical coverage. (A scary 11 percent have vision coverage.)

I didn’t ask about his paycheck. A quick internet check indicates that annual earnings of tow truck drivers range from about $23,810 to $38,959. This guy has been in the business about five years. he’s probably earning near the midpoint, maybe $31,000. That’s around $15.50 an hour for a full-time, full-year worker – not a lot when you are supporting a family of four.

The numbers we should worry about

$31,000 would put my tow truck driver at about 130 percent of the federal poverty line. Under the Affordable Care Act, he would actually be eligible for Medicaid. If he earned the high estimate $38,959, his hourly earnings would be about $20, around 166 percent of the poverty line. That’s still not a lot. Under the Affordable Care Act, his family will soon be able to buy decent insurance on one of the new health insurance exchanges for about $2,000 per year. Right now, about one-third of adults at his income level are uninsured.

I probably earn twice the combined incomes of the tow truck driver and that IDOT guy. I guess that disparity makes me a “job creator” or a “maker,” compared with them. This tow truck driver might get some government help through the Earned Income Tax Credit, too. His kids might receive Medicaid or CHIP. Ayn Rand (and maybe Paul Ryan) might consider him a “taker” because he relies on the safety net.

I don’t apologize for the paycheck. It’s still preposterous to claim that my lucrative job is fundamentally more important. One doesn’t often stop to notice. Yet these two guys are out there every night operating a mundane but real safety net for me when I hit trouble along the road. Much important work is done by working people with sore backs and calloused hands who don’t get paid much, but who pick our fruit, diaper our kids, prepare our meals, drive our kids to school, and more.

My brother-in-law is hospitalized today with a minor infection. Some nurse’s aides are gently cleaning an uninsured man the next bed over. They do so great kindness, so he can have a more comfortable and dignified hospital stay.

The numbers we shouldn’t worry about

11 cents Papa Johns

Would you pay 11 cents more for a pizza to make sure low-income Americans have health coverage?

Papa John’s CEO got attention for his claim that ObamaCare will cause an “11 to 14 cents per pizza” rise in costs. The CFO of McDonald’s worries that health reform might cost McDonald’s and its franchisees $140 to $420 million, for a company whose gross revenues are about $27 billion. Now Papa John’s pizzas cost about ten bucks. So both low-wage employers worry that health reform might raise their costs by something in the neighborhood of 1 percent.

One might quibble with the figures. Let’s assume these are correct, and that these costs would be passed on to consumers in a competitive business. If we want low-income people to be insured, we’ll have to provide some mix of public and private subsidies to make this happen. So yeah, I might have to pay a percent or two more for my pizza or my Big Mac so that the men and women behind the counter have decent medical care. Maybe I’ll have to pay an extra $2 to cover my tow truck driver’s insurance plan.

That seems reasonable. He had my back. I should have his.


Tags: ACA, Obamacare, safety net, uninsured, Harold Pollack

About Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration. He is also Co-Director of The University of Chicago Crime Lab. He has published widely at the interface between poverty policy and public health. Pollack serves as a Fellow at the…

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