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The realities of health care and the economy are causing distress for far too many people

Pity my poor dental hygienist.

Tears were running down my cheeks as I sat in her chair today, not because she was hurting me, but because I was thinking about my insurance, my former employer and the terrible state of our economy.

After Gannett closed the Tucson Citizen in May, I was fortunate to get a severance package. (Gannett employees laid off since then haven't been so lucky.) I had health and dental insurance until the end of August.

Information on extending my insurance at my expense—through COBRA—was hard to come by until my severance ended. Then I got notice that I had until Nov. 3 to decide whether to extend that insurance and pay all the premiums that had accumulated.

I began to explore whether my ex-husband and his wife might add our two boys to their policy, through her work, at no additional expense to them, but I hadn't made a final decision. I had time, I thought.

Yesterday, I got a confusing form from my dental-insurance company that said procedures performed on or planned for one of my sons were denied coverage, because they were occurring after my "eligibility period." In other words, once my severance ended, and until my COBRA decision went into effect, my sons and I were not covered.

Today, when I went for my previously scheduled six-month checkup and cleaning, it was clear that the office had already been notified of my ineligibility. The receptionist asked how I would be paying for today's services. I marveled at how quickly the wheels turn when your insurance is taken away.

I'll be extending my health insurance and my family's dental insurance through COBRA. I'll make sure my sons have health insurance through me or their dad. And I can afford to pay routine health-care costs over the short term.

But by the time I sat down in my dental hygienist's chair, I was fighting back tears. I could no longer contain the stress of losing my job, the fear of never finding another one, worries about keeping our home and our health insurance. And I thought: If I am wrestling with these dire thoughts, how many thousands of individuals and families—in worse financial shape than I am—are carrying these terrible burdens now?

My dental hygienist is a sensitive woman. I was overdue for X-rays, but she offered to put them off for six months so I would not have to pay for them—and the dentist's exam that would come with them. She cleaned my teeth skillfully and thoroughly as always, handing me a tissue to dry my eyes without belaboring the circumstances.

I paid and left. I worried about the crown that my youngest son is scheduled to get soon. And about paying for it while I wait for insurance decisions that take weeks to go through the paperwork pipeline. And I thought about all the people who go without health insurance, who put off needed procedures or treatments for months, for years, forever, because they cannot pay.

It's a sin, I thought, that health care in this country is a privilege and not a right, that companies profit from people's need for care, that a country this prosperous could be so miserly as to watch people suffer mentally and physically because they do not have or cannot afford health insurance.

Shame on us.

Diane Luber was the city editor at the Tucson Citizen when it closed in May. She has worked at newspapers as a reporter or editor for 20 years. She is freelancing and trying to find a full-time job in Tucson, because she loves it here.

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