Lianne Valenti lost her job as manager for a company that makes portable power generators last July.
Valenti, who is 46 and lives in Long Beach, Calif., started drawing unemployment benefits and looking for a new job. She couldn't find one.
"I worked my whole life," she said. "This was the first time it was like hitting a brick wall."
She downsized her life to fit an income a quarter of its former size, moving in with her boyfriend and selling her car. "All these contracts, all these financial commitments you've made are suddenly really major." And she eventually lowered her sights from jobs that paid her former salary, applying instead for any kind of clerical position she could find.
In October, she started having mild chest pains. Her health insurance had stopped; she could have continued her former employer's policy, but she said she couldn't afford the $600-plus premiums on a monthly income of $1,600 in unemployment insurance. She figured she'd have no luck finding a better deal on the notorious individual market (though it is possible a better deal was available -- there is no way to know now). She looked up her symptoms online instead of visiting a doctor.
"I was trying to fix it myself," she said. At first, she thought it was anxiety. Then she settled on gallstones, since many health websites list gallstones as a possible cause of chest pain. "And since they are not life-threatening unless certain symptoms appear," she said in an email, "I decided to just deal with the pain."
The health care reform law is supposed to make insurance coverage affordable for everyone, but not until 2014. In the meantime, people like Valenti can be stuck with not enough money for private insurance, and yet too much money to qualify for publicly subsidized insurance. It's an increasingly common scenario as the number of people with employer group coverage dwindles.
By mid-December, Valenti's spasms came more frequently, lasted longer, and were "paralyzingly painful." But the pain would stop abruptly, and she'd feel better. She looked up herbal cleanses and reflexology.
She spent the holidays with her sister in Utah, trying to put the pain out of her mind, hoping an herbal remedy she'd ordered online would fix her up when it finally arrived. Still, the feeling was hard to ignore when it radiated up from her diaphragm and across her shoulder. "A lot of times it would wake me up in the middle of the night," she said. "I spent so much time sweating, thinking it was just pain, I just need to breathe. And when it passed, it would pass immediately."
Back home one night in early January, it didn't pass as quickly as usual. "I was sitting here in my chair and it lasted for two hours. It was all I could do to breathe. I couldn't open my eyes."
A little after 5 a.m., Valenti called her sister in nearby Lakewood and asked for a ride to the emergency room. Once there, she described her symptoms to a doctor and said she thought she was having a gallstone attack. The doctor checked her out with an electrocardiogram and told her she'd suffered a heart attack. They immediately did an angioplasty and inserted stents to keep her arteries open.
The doctor said she'd nearly died. Valenti was shocked. "In my family history there are heart problems, but I'm healthy. I have low cholesterol." She said the doctor told her it was stress and smoking that caused the attack. "You had a stressful job, when you lost it that stress had nowhere to go," Valenti said she was told.
Numerous studies have shown the unemployed suffer more health problems than people who have jobs. In Valenti's case, it's not hard to see why.
"If I had had my insurance I would have gone to the doctor in October," she said. "The pain was unbearable. I've never had pain like that, and I've had three children."
Valenti said she's had to quit smoking cold turkey and is now scrambling for a way to cope with an onslaught of bills for her treatment and pills. Already the hospital sent her a $79,000 tab for her visit, she said, which she's hoping they'll be willing to forgive or reduce.
Once she's been uninsured for six months, she will be eligible for a health care reform program called the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan, which for a Los Angeles resident Valenti's age costs $306 a month with a $2,500 limit on annual out-of-pocket costs. Even that, she said, would be a stretch -- what she's really hoping for is a job. She said she's had several promising interviews.
"I'm in this position now where I can't just look online. I can't even take herbal stuff without talking to the doctor," she said. "I'm dependent on the medical system now and I have no way of paying for it."
Arthur Delaney is the author of "A People's History of the Great Recession," HuffPost's first e-book.
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