Susan is trapped.
The 49-year-old Tacoma resident works at a job that “pays less than I would like and I don’t feel particularly valued or secure,” she said.
But since her husband lost his job a few years ago, Susan is responsible for providing health insurance for the couple. And the medical and dental benefits at her job are too good to walk away.
“This is it,” said Susan, who asked that only her first name be published. “I’ve looked and there isn’t a better insurance package out there.”
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Susan is stuck in “job lock” — a term for workers like her who want to quit, but can’t because they need the health insurance that comes with the job.
The problem is more common than you might expect. More than one-third of Washingtonians surveyed in a recent Elway Poll reported that either they or someone in their family had experienced job lock. The poll asked 406 voters about their experiences with health care and their opinion about the Affordable Care Act, which aims to overhaul the American health-care system.
Supporters of the ACA, including Gov. Jay Inslee, say the new rules will help crack the job lock problem. The overhaul creates an insurance marketplace that launches Oct. 1 for people to select and buy insurance if their jobs don’t provide it, and offers insurance subsidies based on income levels. It also prohibits insurers from denying coverage to adults with pre-existing medical conditions.
“From now on, you won’t be stuck in a job you don’t like just for the health-care premiums,” Inslee said in July. “This is a freedom issue, not just a health issue.”
How did jobs and health insurance become linked in the first place? University of Washington history professor William Rorabaugh said it goes back to World War II, when industries supporting the war effort — including Boeing and Northwest shipbuilders — competed for workers and wanted to offer health benefits as an enticement. The war ended, but the practice stuck.
It’s not clear whether the Affordable Care Act will be the key to job lock. While the pre-existing condition rule and new insurance plans take effect Jan. 1, premiums will still likely be expensive for individuals who need to buy their own coverage and who don’t qualify for tax benefits. Some people in this situation could, in fact, see their rates go up next year.
Susan was recently furloughed from her job, but will return to work in December. She expects that her employer’s benefits will still trump what she could get through the insurance exchange, in this state called the .
In the meantime Susan is signing up for insurance through COBRA, which will cost $1,150 a month for the couple. It’s expensive, but she believes it’s worth it.
“I know a lot of people who don’t have health insurance and every single one of them is one illness away from losing a home or losing a car,” she said. “They can’t make themselves get insurance because where do you cut? Do I move to a smaller place or sell my car? You get locked into things.”