One thing that the newly jobless -- like the 5,000 laid-off Atlantic City casino workers -- may not have to fear as much as in the past is the loss of health coverage along with the loss of a paycheck.
The closing of the Revel and Showboat casinos may be considered a test case for the Affordable Care Act in New Jersey, advocates point out, noting that workers will be able to receive insurance through the Medicaid expansion or the federal marketplace.
The experiences of city residents like Marcos Vidal, 47, are a good example of the benefits of the ACA, according to advocates.
Vidal worked his last day as a housekeeping supervisor at the Revel on Friday. In 2012, he left a job he’d had for 18 years at Resorts, attracted by the possibility of working at a new casino. He said he couldn’t have imagined then that he would find himself without a job and without health insurance.
“I worked at the first casino that opened in Atlantic City, and now I worked at the last to open,” Vidal said.
But Vidal said he was feeling optimistic yesterday, as he collected information on how to apply for ACA coverage. He picked up a stack of flyers about insurance enrollment, which he planned to distribute to the many members of the Revel housekeeping staff that he had worked with.
Organizations that employ workers and volunteers to help people navigate through insurance enrollment are piggybacking on a newly opened resource center operated by UNITE HERE Local 54, which is helping unemployed casino workers apply for unemployment and other safety-net benefits. The center’s launch yesterday drew a steady stream of laid-off workers.
The workers fall into two groups: unionized employees, who are insured until November 1 or December 1, depending on how many hours they worked this month, and nonunionized workers, who either just lost their insurance or were already uninsured.
The union is establishing a limited health plan that will provide basic coverage through a union-operated health center, according to Local 54 President Bob McDevitt. “We’re working on something that’s affordable,” McDevitt said, adding that his goal is for all of the workers to be employed again within months.
But if the city’s economy doesn’t pull out of the eight-year decline in casino revenues, some unionized workers may ultimately use the ACA coverage. Maura Collinsgru, health policy advocate for the nonprofit New Jersey Citizen Action, said it was important for all of the laid-off workers to know what their options are under the ACA -- both nonunion workers who need coverage immediately and unionized workers who plan to use the basic-coverage union plan in the near term --.
“No longer does losing a job mean having to be uninsured,” she said. “One catastrophe does not need to lead to another.”
Eligibility for the different ACA programs will depend on a worker’s income. New Jersey FamilyCare, which provides free Medicaid coverage, is open to all residents with income below 138 percent of the poverty line. That currently amounts to $16,105 for a single individual and $32,913 for a family of four.
In addition, tax credits to subsidize insurance through the federal marketplace are available to residents who aren’t eligible for FamilyCare. These subsidies apply to people with household incomes up to 400 percent of the poverty line, currently $46,680 for a single person and $95,400 for a four-person household.
While the open enrollment period for the marketplace ended in April and won’t begin again until November 15, those who lose their coverage can apply now.
Justine Ceserano, state director of the national nonprofit Enroll America, suggested that without coverage, unemployed workers could have their loss of income compounded by untreated health problems.
“We are here today to link all workers to enrollers, so that they can get their healthcare coverage immediately, so that they will not be in a situation . . . which will make matters even worse for them,” she said. “They can leave this convention center today with a security, knowing that at least their healthcare coverage will still be in place.”
Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D-Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem) said that the push to enroll residents is beneficial, and credited union for its efforts. But he said that the most important issue for state policymakers is to do everything possible to improve the Atlantic City economy.
“Whatever we can do to help the families here, obviously we need to do -- you have in some cases, both family members losing their jobs,” Sweeney said. “This is as rough as it gets, at least for me in my lifetime. I never remember so many people all at once losing their jobs.”
State Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak (D-Union) said the situation showed the importance of the ACA.
“Obamacare is not very popular, except when you need it, and this is a great example of why we need universal healthcare,” Lesniak said. “I think every American, no matter what their status in life and what their position, understands that folks that lose their job, first and foremost after food and shelter, need healthcare. And that’s what the president’s healthcare program provides. And that story is not told often enough.”