What catches many is something Elizabeth Warren, a professor at Harvard Law School, calls a “double disaster.” Too sick to work, many wind up losing their jobs and the health insurance that came with them.

After her husband lost his job in February, Laura Burch, a 45-year-old Wichita Falls, Texas, housewife with RA, lost her health insurance and began to skip her weekly etanercept (Enbrel) shots. She says she cannot afford to pay out-of-pocket costs – $1,500 a month – for the injections. Without them, she suffers from severe fatigue and debilitating pain.

“Basically, I can’t do much of anything,” she says. “Even the simplest chores fall by the wayside.”

Soon, the Burches hope to obtain some relief from COBRA, the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, a federal law that gives most unemployed workers the right to continue the same health insurance offered through their company policy for 18 months.

Until recently, COBRA payments were significantly higher than many employer-backed health-care plans. Now, however, money in the stimulus package will cover 65 percent of the cost of COBRA payments for eligible involuntarily terminated workers between Sept. 1, 2008 and Dec. 31, 2009.

Even with the help, Burch, who also suffers from Sjögren’s syndrome and depression, says she and her husband, who has a heart condition, will struggle to afford their $585 monthly premium, though it would have been $1,300 without the assistance.

They’ve already maxed out their credit cards, acquiring $20,000 debt from insurance premiums and medications, and they receive at least three letters a week from collection agencies because they have $5,000 in unpaid medical bills.

“I worry a lot about where we’re going to be 10 years down the road. I feel like we’re in a no-win situation,” Burch says. Many families like the Burches survive, barely, by relying on a patchwork system of savings, state assistance and charity.

For Brittiny Peters – who received calls from media outlets such as CNN, The New York Times and “The Tyra Banks Show” after auctioning her possessions on eBay – help came in the form of a couple from Texas who bid $20,000, but only on the condition that the family keep their belongings.

Peters is grateful for the help, but says she will continue to pare down her family’s lifestyle. With a long future of medical bills ahead, the family’s worries are far from over.

The bulk of the children’s care is covered by Medicaid, but with no private insurance to cover each other, Brittiny and Gregg cannot afford to get ill.

Last year, Brittiny’s appendix ruptured in the middle of the night, leaving medical bills of more than $20,000. “We don’t take anything for granted anymore,” Peters said. “The slightest unplanned medical emergency could be catastrophic for our finances.”