Surviving a series of unfortunate events

Life and finance can be precarious. One minute you can be riding high and the next your fortunes can change dramatically.

My mom was convinced that things happen in threes, good and bad.

My in-laws often talk about the universe suddenly finding you, with big things coming in bunches.

I joke around with the notion as an excuse to buy an occasional lottery ticket or lay low for a few days until I can slip unnoticed back under the universe’s difficult stare.

But given the circumstances of the last couple of weeks, I can’t help but wonder if my kin might have a point.

Last week, I wrote about a medical bill that my family received for emergency surgery my wife had in November. (As an update, I’m still trying to fill out the details of what we were charged for what, and a promised credit still hasn’t shown up.)

We received a bill after insurance for more than $3,000.

The bill came sharply on the heels of needing to replace the tires on my car, which were well beyond their legal life expectancy.

On the same day the hospital bill came, the 90-year-old furnace in my house decided to stop working.

And my daughter was home sick, which required my wife to stay home with her and miss work.

With savings and health insurance and a credit card with a low balance, we were able to meet these unexpected troubles. It stung, but we got by.

My wife has a great job, which provides her with sick leave and flexibility that allowed her to stay home with my daughter.

And the furnace, despite its advanced years, was resuscitated.

I outline these circumstances not because we are suffering, but because these same things could have happened to anyone.

And for too many people such a cascade of unrelated events – brought about through no fault of their own besides having a child or an old furnace – could cause a terrible downward spiral.

With no insurance, a family in exactly my circumstances would have had a hospital bill of more than $11,000.

Now for the cascade: The bad tires lead to a blow out and maybe a missed day of work. Just a day or two later, the sick child causes another missed day.

Without sick leave or paid vacation, those two days cause the much bigger trouble. At the least, two days of pay gone. At the worst, an inflexible boss gives you the boot.

How do you fix the furnace? Get the car running again? Pay the property taxes that are due the next week? Stave off the debt collectors who start coming after the hospital bill?

In my work for Maine Equal Justice Partners, which is one of my clients, I hear stories like this frequently. A series of unfortunate, unrelated events sends a young family over the edge.

A 2010 study by Harvard University found that the No. 1 reason that people file for personal bankruptcy is medical bills. And, remarkably, most of those folks had some sort of insurance.

The second most common reason was job loss, followed by poor credit decisions, divorce and some sort of disaster, such as a flood or tornado.

The lessons are pretty straight forward. As individuals and families, we all need to do what we can to save for an emergency. But we also have to understand that many working families make wages that aren’t high enough to save enough for tough times or compounding bad news.

Right now, Democrats and some Republicans – perhaps even including Gov. Paul LePage – are considering a plan to expand access to health care to 69,500 Mainers who currently lack coverage.

Conservative governors in conservative states around the country are opting to provide the coverage and accept the federal funding to make it possible.

Providing health insurance to thousands of people – and effectively cutting Maine’s uninsured rate in half – won’t put an end to any particular series of unfortunate events, but it could make sure that unpaid medical bills aren’t the final straw pushing families into bankruptcy or worse.

We all gain when more people have access to health care when they need it. Productivity goes up. Absenteeism goes down. Treatment for chronic conditions improves. People live longer and healthier lives.

There’s no good reason that we shouldn’t find a way to make health insurance available to thousands of working families who need it.

Then maybe a sick day or furnace repair or new tires would become a bit more manageable.