Last week we asked you to tell us your stories about using the Affordable Care Act’s newly unfurled health exchanges. We whittled down the responses we received to seven Obamacare guinea pigs. They live all over the country and represent a variety of political and socio-economic backgrounds. This is the first in a series of dispatches from Slate readers telling us about their experience using the new health care exchanges.
Small-business owner, 32
I grew up a staunch Republican, voted for Bush twice, but the combination of Sarah Palin and the baffling Republican response to Obamacare has caused me to have a major identity crisis in my political beliefs.
I grew up in House Speaker John Boehner's district, and we're longtime family friends. My grandpa held the same congressional seat, my dad was a township trustee with him when they both were starting out, and I went to school with his kids. I've honestly never disagreed with any significant Republican positions until this one, but I voted for Obama in 2012—the only Democratic vote I've ever made.
I spent an hour or so Tuesday morning browsing plans at the Colorado insurance exchange. My goal was to find coverage for myself and my two children for less cost than we’d incur through my wife’s employer. My children are currently on my wife’s employer-based plan, and my coverage is through the state’s soon-ending high-risk pool. While my wife’s employer coverage is inexpensive for herself, covering our entire family would cost us an additional $1,000 per month out-of-pocket (for a less-than-ideal $3,500 deductible plan).
Browsing and filtering plans is fairly straightforward, and I was impressed by the number of options. For myself and my two children, I was shown a total of 78 plan options from about 10 different carriers. The plans ranged from $357 to $1,024 per month (some including dental coverage), and it was pretty clear that we’d find substantial savings compared to insuring our entire family through my wife’s employer.
Out of curiosity, I also looked up plans just for myself to compare rates. Plans with similar coverage levels were a little more expensive on the exchange than what I’m paying now through the high-risk pool but still would be significantly cheaper than what I’d pay on the open market pre-ACA.
One thing that struck me as I browsed the plans was that I knew the price was THE PRICE. In the past, when I’d browse individual plans, I knew whatever price I was shown would not be the price I’d pay due to my pre-existing condition. It was comforting knowing that I wouldn't have to endure some complicated application process with much uncertainty about my final rate or approval.
I did hit a few snags though. I attempted to create an account on the site. After completing the required information and hitting “submit,” the request seemed to hang and eventually timed out. After speaking with a few friendly but overwhelmed customer service reps, it would seem that my account is in some sort of partially created limbo where I’m unable to either login or register again. They explained that systems were overwhelmed and suggested I try again in a few days, which I’m looking forward to.
Finance consultant, 34
I have a 4-year-old son who was born with a serious defect of his GI tract. Oliver spent his first two months in intensive care racking up more than $400,000 in medical expenses. We order medical supplies online, are very familiar with Levine’s Children’s Hospital, juggle three doctors, and hope to complete Oliver’s final surgery before he starts kindergarten. We are also very fortunate to have a normal, thriving boy with the potential for a long, happy life.
I have political opinions regarding Obamacare (against), but I don’t have the luxury of putting ideology ahead of what is best for my family. Currently, our high-deductible plan from Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina limits our annual medical spending to $13,700, including premiums. I also made sure that we kept the grandfathered status of our plan so we had options when Obamacare took effect.
After spending much of Tuesday on the Internet, I was able to create an account but could not access the North Carolina exchange to learn if we qualified for a subsidy. Blue Cross Blue Shield will be the main insurer in North Carolina, and their website is providing quotes for their new plans. After seeing the plans, I was shocked. The bronze plan that most closely matches our grandfathered plan has a premium of $676 versus $294 for our current plan. The bronze plan also has higher out-of-pocket spending—$11,000 vs. $10,000—and does not provide a health savings account.
Higher expenses for more than twice the price is not progress for my family. We would need a subsidy of at least $5,000 to make the bronze plan competitive with our grandfathered, unsubsidized plan. It appears that families and individuals with low incomes should benefit, but at great cost.
Part-time jobs, 55
My name is Kevin Mims. I am 55. My wife is 62. We've been married for 33 years, and for most of that time we had excellent health insurance coverage through my wife's work. (She was an escrow officer for 30 years.) She got laid off in 2010, and since then we have both been working at multiple part-time jobs, none of which provide health insurance. We are both freelance notaries public. My wife also works part-time for my stepdaughter's home business (which has only three employees). What's more, she works several days a month at a local antiques co-op. In addition to my notary work, I am a freelance writer, a fill-in clerk at a local bookstore, an antiques seller, and do a lot of other odd jobs such as house-sitting, pet-sitting, even baby-sitting.
Life without insurance has been scary. In June I went out jogging one day without checking the temperature. I thought the temperature was in the 80s, but a mile or two into my run, I began feeling really sick, as if I were coming down with heat stroke or something. On the way back home, I passed a building whose time-and-temperature display informed me that it was 104 degrees outside. I felt sicker and sicker as the day went on. By 11:30 p.m., I had the dry heaves and was retching uncontrollably. At midnight my wife took me to the emergency room of the U.C. Davis Medical Center. They did a quick EKG on me, determined I wasn't having a heart attack, and then assigned me a very low triage priority.
Next they sent me to the finance department to try to figure out how I was going to pay for any treatment I received. I was asked about the value of my home, the value of my cars, and other personal property. I was asked about the value of my bank accounts, about my annual income. All of this increased the stress I was under. After signing some papers agreeing to reimburse the hospital for any treatment I received, I was sent to the emergency waiting area. After sitting in the waiting area for three hours without being seen by a doctor or nurse, I began to feel better, so I left the hospital. Later I got a bill from the medical center for $850.
I visited the Covered California’s website Tuesday morning at 9:15. I clicked the button that said "Start Here." I got a message that said, "Problem Loading Page." Repeated attempts yielded the same result. At 9:30 I dialed Covered California's 1-800 number. I got an automated message saying that the call center was handling a higher than expected volume of calls and that my approximate wait time would be 292 minutes. I left my name and phone number and requested a callback.
I’m not worried. I still have three months in which to enroll in a health plan. Considering that the federal government has shut down and millions of people are in need of the health coverage Obamacare offers, it isn't surprising to me that I wasn't able to get assistance on Day One. I'll try again tomorrow.
On the bright side, I was amazed by the affordability of the plans on offer at Covered California. My wife and I are leaning toward Kaiser Permanente's Bronze 60 plan, the premiums for which are only $2 a month.