March 14, 2003

A Personal Story

Joseph Cabrera

Owner of a small furniture company in Chula Vista

When you hear about the 41 million uninsured, think about the people who work for me. It’s not that my brother and I don’t want to provide health insurance for our employees. But like most small employers across the nation, we simply can’t afford the premiums.

We own a furniture manufacturing and upholstering business here in Chula Vista. We’ve been in business for 18 years.

My brother and I believe we have an obligation to provide health insurance to our employees. Many have been here as long as we have. They’ve stuck by us and we want to stick by them when they need health care.

But it hasn’t always been easy to live up to that commitment.

For just two years, we were able to provide health insurance to our 32 employees. But in 1998, when our health plan refused to cover one of our employees who got sick, we dropped it immediately.

In one moment, we all joined the ranks of the uninsured. For one year, my brother and I had no health coverage for ourselves or our employees. At about $200 per employee per month, it was not an affordable option for us. As a father with three children, I worried about what this would mean for my family and my livelihood. One catastrophic illness could have bankrupted my family and my business.

Asking our employees to share the cost of a $200 monthly premium was out of the question. Many make $7-to-$10 an hour. They can’t afford to pay $100 or even $70 a month out of pocket for health care, when they are trying to feed their families, clothe their children, and pay their rent. All of our employees have families with anywhere from one to four kids.

Losing health benefits also cost us good employees, who went to competitors in search of health coverage. We suffered a 30-percent employee turnover when we dropped our health plan. That’s a tough burden on a company like ours that relies heavily on skilled workers to produce furniture for the high-demand resort industry.

Luckily, we got a break about a year ago, when we learned about FOCUS, a new subsidized health insurance program for families with low-incomes. Financially Obtainable Coverage for Uninsured San Diegans is available to companies with up to 50 employees that don’t offer health insurance. Families are eligible if they have incomes up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level. The Alliance Healthcare Foundation, San Diego’s only nonprofit health care philanthropy, provides funding for FOCUS. Sharp Healthcare provides the services.

In 1999, we became the first company accepted into the program. It’s made a huge difference for our employees. The employee’s insurance premium is a fraction of what the private market charges, $26 to $32 a month, and covers the entire family. We pick up $7,800 per year compared to the $26,000 a year that we would have paid for a typical policy in the private market.

FOCUS covers everything that a regular health insurance plan covers. Our employees get full medical benefits—doctor visits, regular check-ups for kids, surgery and hospitalization, prescription drugs, and mental health coverage. Employees pay only $10 for each doctor visit.

My brother and I don’t qualify for FOCUS because our incomes are too high. We struggled to find affordable insurance; the lowest premium we found was $474 a month. We have finally found a more reasonably priced small group policy by banding together with several associates.

Things have changed for the company, too. Being able to offer good health benefits has helped us recruit and retain employees as well as rehire old ones who left. Our business is more competitive, and, most importantly, our employees feel that they have some health security.

Hardworking people need affordable health insurance and the peace of mind that comes with knowing that when they or their loved ones get sick, they can get the care they need. We were lucky that we were able to find something for our employees. But FOCUS is only a temporary solution. The pilot is in its second and final year of operation and funding may or may not continue. If it doesn’t continue, our employees and their families will likely be uninsured once again.

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