While waiting to meet with an eviction mediator at the Dane County Courthouse, Kevin Corcoran rubs one hand over his arthritic right knee while clutching a court notice in his other.
Corcoran, a liver transplant recipient who gets around slowly with the aid of a four-legged walker, is just coming off a highly resistant staph infection known as MRSA. He has chronic pain from hepatitis B, which he contracted in the 1970s from blood transfusions after a serious car accident, and diabetes. Within the last year he's been in a diabetic coma, had a mini-stroke, and battled three bouts of cellulitis.
Corcoran is at the courthouse this Tuesday afternoon because he and his partner, Myrna Ulrich, are nearly $10,000 behind on the rent for their two-bedroom apartment, and landlord Philip Kessel wants them out.
"I think I've been pretty reasonable," Kessel tells Dan Wassink, a volunteer mediator with the Tenant Resource Center, who is meeting with both parties to see if an agreement can be reached short of eviction.
Wassink asks Corcoran and Ulrich whether they would be able to work out a payment plan to pay Kessel what he's owed. Neither Ulrich nor Corcoran pushes hard for this option; it's clear they don't have the money.
"The only income I have now is Social Security and a small pension," says Corcoran, 62, who has worked only sporadically since his transplant surgery in 2002.
Ditto for Ulrich, 60. "No one wants to hire someone over 50," she says. "Up until I lost my unemployment we'd been keeping up with our payments. It's not because we're deadbeats."
Corcoran says he pays thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket Medicare co-pays for the 20 different prescription drugs he takes daily. Until recently, he says, he was repeatedly denied state Medicaid coverage because his monthly haul from Social Security - $1,603 - exceeds the program's income ceiling of $591.67. His monthly pension is about $50.
As a result Corcoran has scrimped on medical supplies, reusing insulin syringes and skipping some pills. He and Ulrich have fallen behind not just on rent, but on other bills as well.
Wassink is kind and compassionate as the two relay their tale of economic hardship. "I see a lot of that in here," he says. But he keeps the parties moving toward a resolution.
Eventually Corcoran and Ulrich agree to move out by Oct. 20 so that Kessel can ready the apartment for new tenants. Arrangements for Corcoran and Ulrich to pay the rent they owe Kessel will wait for another day.
The only bright spot for the couple: An eviction won't appear on their record because they reached an agreement on a move-out date. That, says Wassink, could help them find another place, something Ulrich is committed to doing.
"We just don't want to be out in the streets come this fall," said Ulrich. "I could probably do it. It would probably be the death of him."
Lynn Green, director of the Dane County Department of Human Services, says she can't comment specifically on Corcoran's case due to confidentiality restraints, but says it's quite possible he is either confused or misinformed about his eligibility for benefits.
But Green adds that the county has "no discretion" to change the co-pays or other requirements of the state Medicaid program. "We can't flex those rules because they are given to us. We can't do anything even if it seems like a hardship to people. These aren't our programs."
Corcoran keeps a fat folder of paperwork related to his attempts to get benefits. If he is confused it's somewhat understandable. He received a letter dated July 2, 2011, from the county telling him his case had been assigned to a new worker. He received a letter dated July 10, 2011, telling him his case had been assigned to a new worker. The names were not the same.
Corcoran says he finally got some help after contacting Care Wisconsin, an agency that administers the state's "Partnership" program. He's been covered since August and says it will help pay most of his medical visits and prescription drugs.
While that should certainly provide some relief, Corcoran and Ulrich are still in a pinch. They have less than a month to find a new place and pack up and move.
Corcoran's health troubles started in 1979, when a car accident left him temporarily paralyzed. He eventually learned to walk but could never return to his previous work as a chef for area supper clubs.
In the late 1990s he started working for a state contractor that, ironically, administered some of the state's Medicaid programs. Ulrich also worked there and together they pulled in about $50,000 a year, enough to get by, says Corcoran.
But in 2001 Corcoran started getting sick. A trip to the hospital revealed he had hepatitis B and was in end-stage liver disease. He was put at the top of the list for a donor liver and received one in September 2002. By that point he had maxed out his prescription drug coverage and his own credit cards.
Corcoran's post-surgery experience was rough physically and financially. He lost the condo he shared with Ulrich in Cross Plains to foreclosure and declared bankruptcy.
As he puts it: "I got sick and everything went to hell."
It is a familiar story, say advocates, especially in these hard economic times.
While working people and extremely poor families with children usually have access to health insurance, it's much more of a scramble for everyone else, says Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin. "If you get sick and can't work you're in this terrible situation. That's why such a high percentage of bankruptcies are related to medical bills."
And if, like Corcoran, you make a meager income but it's still over the federal poverty line, your options are limited. Kraig says national health care reform could theoretically help Corcoran, but implementation in the state is still a few years out. And with the state eyeing $500 million in Medicaid cuts, it's unclear what programs will be left, period.
For now, says Kraig, there is no safety net. "There are a lot of people, even if they're doing okay now, they're on the brink of catastrophe. It's a level of economic peril we probably haven't had in this country since the Great Depression."