WASHINGTON -- Maria Gomez knows firsthand the devastation that can hit families who don't have health insurance.
Gomez is chief executive officer of Mary's Center for Maternal and Child Care in the District of Columbia. The clinic serves Latinos who either have no insurance or are underinsured.
The fact that 47 million people in the United States, including 9 million children, are uninsured has been one of the top issues in the current presidential campaign. Equally troubling is this statistic: The lack of health care coverage is most acute among Latinos and blacks, many of whom work in low-wage jobs without benefits or are employed by small businesses that don't offer coverage.
"Things are getting worse," Gomez said. "What we are seeing is a lot of people coming in who cannot qualify for government programs."
These families earn too much to qualify for free care but don't make enough to pay for their own health insurance, she said.
Thirty-six percent of Latinos are uninsured, compared with 22 percent of blacks, 17 percent of Asian/Pacific Islanders, and 13 percent of whites, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation's most recent analysis of census data.
If you have adequate health insurance and are inclined to think this issue doesn't affect you, let me assure you it does.
The cost of insurance for those with coverage is escalating in part because the number of uninsured Americans keeps rising, said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a nonprofit national organization that advocates for high-quality, affordable health care for all Americans.
Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and the National Center for Health Statistics, Families USA determined that the unpaid expenses for the uninsured added an average of $922 dollars in 2005 to the premiums for employer-provided family health insurance. That extra cost could rise to $1,502 in 2010, the group found.
If you have insurance, you know how the costs hit your wallet.
Increasingly, employers are shifting a larger portion of their health premiums to employees. You may be able to afford your policy today, but it's possible you may not in the future.
Premiums for employer-sponsored health insurance rose an average of 6.1 percent in 2007, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research and Educational Trust. The average annual premium for family coverage in 2007 was $12,106, and workers paid an average of $3,281 out of their paychecks to cover their share of the cost of a family policy.
Since 2001, premiums for family coverage have increased 78 percent.
It may be easy to dismiss the uninsured, especially minority families, as a group of people who just want a handout or who should strive to get better-paying jobs. But these people are the workers and caregivers who provide needed services.
The people without insurance ring up your purchases at retail stores.
They mow your lawns or fix the roof on your home. They cook the meals and clear away your dishes in restaurants.
They watch your children so you can work at a job with health benefits.
They care for your elderly parents or grandparents.
"This is a problem for all of us. Eighty percent of people who are uninsured are working, and some at more than one job. They deserve to have health care coverage," said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and chief executive of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
There is at least one good thing that might emerge from the current economic crisis: As more people lose their jobs and join the ranks of the uninsured, it will be harder for our political leaders to avoid a long-term solution.
Write to Michelle Singletary, c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071, or e-mail her at email@example.com.