Here’s a secret: I’m among the uninsured.
I have spent the last month without health insurance, for the first time in my life. And I haven’t been telling anyone because I remember the way people like me were discussed during the debate over the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a ObamaCare.
The term for my faction was wrought with irony: “young invincibles.” There are plenty of us: Reportedly, about 15.7 million Americans age 19 to 29 are not covered.
The idea is that as 20-somethings with relatively sound health histories, we forego insurance to save a little extra money each month. Then we crash our cars, break our legs. And the result is, we’re screwed. We get up to our faces in medical debt. Basically, the subtext of the term is, we’re fools.
Foolishness is why I don’t have insurance, but not because I think I’m invincible I’m well aware of my physical frailty, having needed various hospital treatments in the last several years. My problem is: I’m completely ignorant about how to buy health insurance.
Thanks to ObamaCare, I got to stay on my dad’s health insurance plan until last month, when I turned 26. The allowance for young adults was great for me, since I’d quit my full-time journalism job in July to try to start a freelance career. Ironically, the decision was geared toward improving my health: Working from home, I’d have more time to focus on staying healthy.
Losing my benefits was a major downside of doing freelance full-time, but being under 26 at the time, my dad let me piggyback onto his healthcare plan for a few months.
By the time my birthday rolled around and I got kicked off my dad’s plan, I had still failed to buy health insurance. Sure, procrastination contributed to the problem, in a big way, but so did my utter inability to understand what to do.
At first I thought I could figure it out, like the millions of other simple, everyday things that I just don’t know how to do. Patient friends have helped me with everything from jump starting my car to filing my taxes.
So a few months before my birthday, I called my dad’s health insurance company to see if I could make some headway on unraveling this.
To choose the appropriate plan, I wanted to know things like how much it would cost for me to stay on my dad’s policy, which providers I could see if I stayed with the same provider on a cheaper plan, how much dental visits generally cost, and whether it’s possible to get a dental cleaning without x-rays when you’re seeing a new dentist. Along with a bunch of other stuff.
But a few minutes into the phone call, as I was getting ready to dive into my prescription-related questions, I heard an unusual sound. The woman on the other end of the line was crying. Seriously.
“I don’t know the answers to all of these questions,” she said.
I felt awful. I know I can be a little intense, but c’mon. Maybe she was just having one of those days. But another very real possibility is that our system is just too painfully confusing. You did a great job, I said, trying to reassure her.
But I was no closer to getting insured. I started asking my friends who don’t have full-time jobs what they bought. Generally they were piggybacking on someone else’s plan, had MediCaid, or were simply uninsured, waiting for ObamaCare policies to become available in January.
I decided to see if I qualified for MediCaid. It turned out to be a dead end. I don’t qualify, but confirming this by phone meant getting transferred eight times, hung up on once, and just increasingly frustrated with this process.
Online research also got me nowhere. I can barely keep straight what a deductible is, much less employ the kind of analysis that would allow me to determine which plan would A) cover me if a costly medical issue came up, and B) not drain me on the monthly payment.
I started calling insurance agents I found online. When I tried to run scenarios by them — like, how much do you think it would cost me out of pocket if I broke my arm? — they all said there was no way of answering that kind of question. The plans they were describing to me ranged from $65 per month to $500 per month, and I was having trouble understanding what differentiated them.
I started to sympathize with my friends who were waiting on ObamaCare. I can refrain from getting hurt or contracting anything deadly ’til January, right? I decided to give up for a time. Yes, it’s foolish, but at this point a mountain of medical debt seems more appealing than spending another minute trying to navigate the excruciating complexity of this system.
It’s really not ideal. I went to fill a prescription last week, and a script that I used to get for free when I was covered now costs me around $250. The pharmacist pointed me toward some online coupons that, helpfully, drove the cost down to $80.
Hopefully ObamaCare will make this easier, especially for people like me who don’t understand how this works, and have very little patience for this kind of task. Looking forward to January, I checked the ObamaCare website to see what this would look like for me.
But, as everyone knows, they are having technical difficulties so bad that the President of the United States had to get involved with delivering the error message.
The website explained: My account “couldn’t be created at this time. The system is unavailable.”
On a live chat, a woman named Melissa explained: “We have a lot of visitors trying to use our website right now. This is causing some glitches for some people trying to create accounts or log in. Keep trying, and thanks for your patience. You might have better success during off-peak hours, like later at night or early in the morning. We’ll continue working to improve the site so you can get covered! “
In the news, President Obama explained: “There’s no excuse for the problems. And these problems are getting fixed.”
He added, “No one is more frustrated than I am.”
I’d be willing to dispute that.
Fast forward, past weeks of criticism of the Obama administration, hearings on Capitol Hill, and constant squawking in the media about the website debacle.
November was slightly better than October. Data released December 11 showed that 260,000 people enrolled in Obamacare exchanges in November — more than double the number of sign-ups in October.
I resumed my effort to get a plan, and this time the website worked. It was clear and accessible, and offered me plans with premiums ranging from $10 a month to several hundred. It provided the clearest side-by-side comparison of plans that I encountered during my insurance-buying saga.
By way of comparison, a single 26-year-old who made $30,000 a year would be able to buy a plan from Horizon Blue Cross that costs $187 a month, though it would come with a $6,350 deductible. The best plan available, an “AmeriHealth NJ Select National Access Platinum” plan would be $481 a month, but would not have a deductible. Instead, the latter plan would come with co-pays ranging from $10 to $40 for drugs and doctor’s visits.
The website also allowed me to decide how much of a nice-sized tax credit I want to apply to my month premium. (Most who make less than $35,000 a year are eligible for a subsidy.) Conversely, I could choose to apply none of the credit, and get all the money back in one sum once per year.
I’m still going over my options, and I might end up calling up for help to see how I should report certain information. But at this point I can finally feel assured that I will have health insurance in the near future, and it won’t break the bank.