Should You Scream, Cry, Start Over? Practical Advice for Obamacare Sign-Ups.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Dec. 16 2013 5:26 PM

How to Sign Up for Health Care

Practical advice from Slate’s guinea pigs.

(Continued from Page 2)

Tasha Huebner, 45, self-employed, Oregon.

Well, the Cover Oregon site isn't yet capable of letting people sign up online. Luckily, I sent in my paper application a few weeks before the deadline—because apparently they have so many they won't be able to process them all before Jan. 1.

I just received my packet of info from Cover Oregon—they processed my application and gave me the information I needed to sign up, and I can now go on the website and pick out my plan and register for it! So at least that part is working. I'll be paying around $300 a month for a plan with a $500 or $750 deductible (depending on which plan I choose) and $1,500 out-of-pocket max. This is compared to the $780 I'm paying now (it went up in October) or the $820 I'd be paying in January. (I just got notified of a rate increase due to "the costs of the ACA.") I'll be covered as of Jan. 1.

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So it hasn't been a totally smooth process, but it literally took me about 20 minutes to fill out the Cover Oregon form—compared to the many hours I wasted filling out insurance apps this past summer, only to be denied.

All in all, I'm VERY happy. VERY VERY VERY. Ecstatic and relived.

Emily Terrell, 40, part-time appraiser, Sumner, Wash.

I ended up with a very different outcome than I expected. Yes, the plan I will get is still more expensive with a higher deductible. Also, my insurance company (same as before) seems to have dropped my medical practice. That's a bummer, but it might have happened anyway if I got a new job.

I told my present employer that because of the new insurance, I'd have to look for another job. I work part time (20 to 30 hours per week) for this employer, and I said I'd find a new part-time job to supplement my income. Failing that, I'd go back to one of the public sector full-time jobs I left behind several years ago. (I was a community development director at a local city; now I'm a real-estate appraiser and consultant.) My employer thought about it for a week or so and came back with an offer. Even though our company is only three of us, they'd find a way to offer benefits so I could stay.

We worked together but couldn't find an affordable group plan. My employer looked up options for Health Savings Accounts while I spent hours of frustration trying to find an HSA-compatible plan. After many attempts I almost bought insurance from the health exchange. I hesitated because the state wanted me to purchase dental insurance for my son. I already have dental for my son and didn't want to change up a plan that's working. I finally managed to get a call into my present insurer (they'd had real technical difficulties with the extra traffic they've been receiving). I found an HSA-compatible plan. My employer said if I paid for dental, he'd pay for health.

Though I'd still be better off financially getting a full-time job in my field, because my employer values me and is willing to provide benefits (effectively a $6,000 per year raise), I can stay working from home and doing all the things that make my life great.

In the end, I'd have to say this is a success story, but like the Karate Kid, I got beat up along the way.

Stephen Marsh, 39, freelancer, Carmel, Ind.

Sadly, I've been trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare since Nov. 4. If you hadn't contacted me, my plan had been to contact YOU, because I'm really out of options that don't involve "alert the press" and "contact my senator/the president."

I'll try to keep this brief, but I know I'll fail.

Healthcare.gov said I successfully registered on Nov. 9, quoting me a VERY acceptable rate (after subsidies) and putting me in initial enrollment. Unfortunately, that information has been unable to populate to my chosen provider. To summarize the hellish bureaucratic loop I've been trapped in:

  • I call my chosen provider. They say they don't have my data and I need to call healthcare.gov.
  • I call healthcare.gov. They say the system shows my application in initial enrollment; from their point of view, they're done. I tell them my provider says they don't have the data. They say they'll escalate to an advanced resolution center (ARC) representative, and I'll hear back within two to five business days. If I don't hear back (they say), I'm invited to call back.
  • If I call back on Day 5, they won't do anything (because it's not the end of the fifth business day).
  • If I call back on Day 6, their system shows that I'm at initial enrollment; from their point of view, they're done. They tell me I should call my chosen provider.
  • Repeat.

I have made 12 phone calls since Nov. 9, all in excess of 20 minutes each.

There seems to be literally nothing I can do, because each of the two sides believes they're done. There's no "escalation" possible; the only mechanism I have is the ARC, which either won't return my calls or tells me that there's nothing they can do.

As of Dec. 6, my chosen health care provider had a novel idea: Try to cancel the policy entirely and reapply. Unfortunately, there's no mechanism to do so online; calling into healthcare.gov, they said they would escalate to an ARC (again).

Logging onto the website now, I see—amazingly yet surprisingly—that there are TWO canceled applications online for me on healthcare.gov, and one application that is currently in initial enrollment (again). I called my health care provider and—for the first time—they seem to have SOME of my data ... but not enough to get me coverage. They suggested I call healthcare.gov again. However, I know I can't do so again until Dec. 16 (because if I call earlier they'll just tell me to call back since I'm still within the five-day window).

Dec. 16 is really my last chance, because if things escalate again to an ARC—which they almost certainly will—then the end of the next five-day window will be Dec. 24 (the day after the last day to enroll). After fruitlessly calling healthcare.gov on Dec. 16, my plan was to contact my Democratic senator (Joe Donnelly), President Obama, and the press.

I remain in support of the ACA. If I were actually able to get the policy I claim to be able to, it would be a HUGE win for our family: lower costs, much better premiums, much better coverage, etc. However, I've been trapped for more than a month between two sides of a bureaucracy, each side shrugging and saying, "Not our problem."

That's the short form; the longer version isn't as enjoyable as I've made it out.

UPDATE: I called my chosen provider, and they indicated (again) that my information wasn't complete. They directed me (again) to healthcare.gov.

The first person at healthcare.gov I spoke with tried to tell me that it wasn't their problem (again), but after I started screaming with the mouthpiece covered, crying, and getting hysterical—not my finest moment—I was put on hold and transferred immediately to an ARC representative. The very nice woman I spoke with indicated that, judging by my application ID number, I must have started my application late October (I did), and that most of those applications were broken. She offered to start a new application—an option that wasn't available when I specifically asked several weeks ago—and we started the application process anew via phone. We completed the application (72 minutes on the phone total), and now I'm waiting for my initial two to three days to hear from my insurer. I'm cautiously optimistic this will work—it feels like progress—but I'm nervous because my new application isn't showing up on the website. (She said to wait 24 hours for the database to refresh.)