Obamacare’s Newest Victims Are Being Squeezed by Government Incompetence and Private Insurance Company Greed

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 30 2013 6:32 PM

Obamacare’s Newest Ills

Americans are being squeezed by the pincer movement of government incompetence and private insurance company greed.

Dorchester, Massachusetts waiting room
In this file photo a mother and daughter wait to see their doctor in Dorchester, Mass. Americans continue to have problems using healthcare.gov to replace their insurance plans that will no longer be valid under Obamacare.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Obamacare is nerve-wracking for the very people it was intended to help. During the healthcare.gov saga, I've been in regular touch with Alice, a Pennsylvania woman trying to sign up for health insurance through the federal exchanges. She is a member of that 5 percent of the population who buys insurance in the individual market. When the Affordable Care Act took effect on Oct. 1, she was anxious to register for new health care coverage, because it is almost certain to be a better deal than her current plan. Instead, like millions of Americans, she has been confused and thwarted over the last month as the government’s website failed her.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk. Follow him on Twitter.

Her stress and confusion level recently quadrupled when her old insurance company, Independence Blue Cross, sent her a letter reminding her that Obamacare meant her old policy was expiring and that "to ensure continuous coverage, you'll need to select a new plan by December 15, 2013." 

If everything had gone as promised, by now she would have had a chance to sign up for insurance through the window-shopping wonders of healthcare.gov. Or, at least, she'd have some idea what her options were. How big would her subsidy be? What would her co-pays and deductibles be? But she has no idea, and the Obamacare snafus don't give her any confidence that she'll have a clearer answer by Dec. 15. Her biggest worry is going without coverage. So while Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius says people have months to sign up for health care, that’s not true for Alice—she has seven weeks. No matter that Sebelius and her IT team assures everyone that the website will be fixed by Dec. 1. Alice has a reasonable belief that she’s going to get the wrong end of things. 

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While healthcare.gov goes through its convalescence, Alice has tried to sort out things on her own. She is buffeted between government incompetence and insurance company greed. She can't get answers from healthcare.gov, and she's not sure she trusts the answers she hears from the insurance companies because she knows that they don't have her interests at heart. When they calculate her subsidy, is it the actual figure? Is it in their interest to steer her toward the best deal or the best deal for them? "I have to make this decision by Dec. 15, but I don't know if there will be real information by then," she says.

President Obama suggested that frustrated customers call the 800 number, so Alice did. The woman from healthcare.gov said she could mail her some information, which would arrive in three weeks. “Can't you email it to me?” Alice asked. We're not set up for that, the Obamacare operator replied. Once the application arrives, Alice is to fill out the forms, mail them back, and hope for speedy processing. It had better be fast because at that point there will only be about a month before her coverage lapses.

While Alice waits for the mail to arrive, she has tried healthcare.gov several more times to get any kind of additional information. According to the site, she has only two carriers to choose from in Pennsylvania and she can only learn the name of the plans and the estimated premium and nothing more—not the co-pays, deductibles, or anything else. She's on the comparison-shopping site but can't actually compare plans. "Not only are they quoting you a bogus number, but you can't see what that bogus number represents," she says. "You are in total bullshit land." Her insurer gives her a number for her new monthly premium, but it's several hundred dollars a month higher than the estimate she got on healthcare.gov.

Had Obamacare not existed, Alice would have renewed her expensive but passable plan and lived under the fear that her rates would increase. Now she has spent a month not sure what she's going to have and experiencing the dread that she’s going to get squashed in the pincer movement of the government and the private health insurance market. Whether you're in the private market or the employer system, the health care insurance dance is an unpleasant one. You study the forms, listen to the webinars, and try to read the fine print, but in the end you can never shake the feeling that you're losing out in some way you'll never understand until it's too late. In the end, Obamacare may be wonderful for Alice, but so far its rollout has only made her sick.