Living on the Edge

Food stamps, rather than medical coverage, are all one homeless man has to keep him alive

Michael Veasey is acutely aware of the ironies that have apparently cost him his essential medical insurance coverage. He just hopes his experience can help others avoid a similar fate.

The 56-year-old Veasey's need for health care is critical. In March he was hospitalized at Tucson Medical Center (TMC) for three days, he says.

"I was having severe breathing problems," Veasey remembers vividly, "and couldn't get any oxygen in my lungs. I was spitting up things (that looked) like cotton candy. So they had me on steroids."

Since then, Veasey has been leery of a reoccurrence. "I'm almost afraid to go to sleep," he says of his lung problems, "because I wouldn't be able to call 911 for help. My heart goes chunkedy-chunk since I'm not getting enough blood in my body."

Veasey has nothing but praise for his stay at TMC. The Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS), the state's medical insurance program for the poor, paid for his treatment.

After decades of working on home construction and then day labor jobs, with the downturn in the economy, Veasey has been unemployed and homeless for a few years. He currently lives outdoors on the northwest side of town and has almost no income, thus is eminentably eligible for the childless adult portion of AHCCCS.

Veasey says he had been on the program previously and enrolled again in mid-July of last year. He distinctly remembers he signed up for food stamps at the same time. While embarrassed he can't afford to feed himself, Veasey expresses gratitude for the food assistance.

Since he understood he needed to re-enroll in both programs after one year, on July 8 Veasey conscientiously went to the Department of Economic Security (DES) office on West Fort Lowell Road. He was in for quite a shock.

"They told me since I didn't have dependent children," Veasey recalls, "I was off AHCCCS."

To balance the state budget, Governor Jan Brewer came up with a plan that, among other things, freezes enrollment in the childless adult portion of AHCCCS. Presently, that program has about 225,000 people enrolled statewide.

"I voted for her," Veasey notes of the governor. But based on his AHCCCS experience, he declares, "I'm voting Democratic from now on."

The AHCCCS freeze took affect on July 8, the very day Veasey went to reapply for coverage. He says DES workers informed him his AHCCCS reapplication period had expired but his food stamps would be continued.

"They told me, 'That's it,'" Veasey says about his medical coverage. "At least I can die with a full belly."

Veasey acknowledges he may be mistaken about when he enrolled with AHCCCS in 2010. "But I honestly don't think so," he quickly adds.

According to information released with Veasey's approval by the AHCCCS agency, his "coverage was due to expire June 30." To remind him to reapply, DES reportedly mailed him a notification on May 12.

The timing of that notice apparently doesn't comply with AHCCCS's own established timelines. An agency fact sheet states that AHCCCS members "will be notified 60 days before the due date of their renewal." In Veasey's case, that would have been May 2, not May 12.

A few days after his AHCCCS renewal was denied, Veasey saw Jim Nintzel's July 14 Weekly cover article on the program cuts, "Draining Arizona Health Care." Because of the information contained in the story, Veasey believes reading the Weekly article may end up saving his life.

As an example, Veasey isn't sure the initial AHCCCS notice about his June 30 renewal date was ever sent. He is certain, though, he never received it.

When he met with DES caseworkers on July 8, Veasey says they told him they had no mail returned from his general delivery address.

That is an important detail because Veasey picks up his mail at the main post office south of 22nd Street. He admits that because of its distance from where he lives he hadn't been there in quite some time.

A trip by Veasey to the post office last week only resulted in more confusion. He did have a few form letters from AHCCCS, but not one dated May 12.

The earliest letter at the post office for Veasey was dated June 13. But instead of giving a 60-day notice, it states Veasey had not reapplied for the program and needed to do so by June 24 if he wished to continue coverage.

Veasey believes many others may share his AHCCCS predicament and that state agencies aren't prepared to deal with these situations.

"People who don't have a car," he points out of the poor like himself, "will try to solve the problem on the phone. But that only leads to 30-minute waits and then a dial tone. It's beyond frustration. (The system) is not set up to help people."

For his part, Veasey is fighting to have his AHCCCS coverage reinstated by filing an appeal. In addition to arguing he never received the original notification of his AHCCCS renewal deadline, he plans to point out his breathing disability.

As to what will happen if the appeal is denied, Veasey shakes his head in disbelief. "I wish I had an answer," he says. "What can I do? What options do I have? It's like they've told me, 'Just drop dead!'"

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