Michael Merlina was fed up, frustrated and seemingly out of options when he walked into Middlesex Superior Court last week and plunked down $275 for court fees.
With help from a few clerks, Merlina became his own lawyer and filed a lawsuit against the Massachusetts Health Insurance Connector Authority.
The 29-year-old North Reading glazier is fighting the $2,000 state fine for not having health insurance. In 2009, the first year penalties were in place, Merlina paid a $400 fine for him his wife.
This time, he balked.
“It makes no sense to me,” Merlina told The Pulse. “I’m a hard-working, tax-paying guy who can’t afford $800 a month for health insurance, or the $2,000 penalty for not having it, and nobody seems to get this.”
Here in Massachusetts, which requires all residents to have health insurance, some working stiffs like Merlina fall through the cracks.
He’s not one of the 184,000 Massachusetts residents poor enough to qualify for the state’s mostly free health care. Nor is he lucky enough to work for a company that provides insurance.
Merlina installs windows and shower doors at his family’s glass business, which doesn’t offer health insurance to its seven employees. His grandparents and aunts have their health insurance through spouses, but that’s not an option for Merlina, whose wife has been out of work for six months.
“She’s looking, but there’s just not a lot out there,” he said.
He called the Connector when mandatory health insurance went in effect – looking for help finding an affordable plan.
Merlina said the best plan, for two people in their late 20s, would have cost him $800 a month, out of his reach.
According to his suit, Merlina’s after-tax, weekly income of $762 a week covers the two mortgages on his North Reading condo, which he and his wife bought at the top of the housing market.
Then there’s the $400 a month in car loans and $393 a month in condo fees, not to mention $74 for electricity and $360 for groceries.
Merlina included these details in his appeal of the $2,000 fine, but the state denied him anyway, saying, “You did not provide sufficient documents.”
Connector spokesman Dick Powers said Merlina is among the 2,500 people who appealed this year’s fine. About half of those appeals were upheld but mostly for people who had lost their homes to foreclosure, suffered through the death of a spouse or had been a domestic violence victim.
For a working guy like Merlina, it seems there’s no relief in sight.
“It’s impossible to me how they could miss where I am coming from,” the baffled Revere native said. “I’m hanging on by a thread, and I feel like I am not being heard at all.”
So last week, on his way in to work, he took a detour, to the courthouse, where he filed his suit.
“Even if a judge says, ‘Michael, you are wrong, and here’s why,’ I’ll know someone listened to me,” he says, “and I’ll find the money, and pay the fine.”