Did Slate’s Obamacare Guinea Pigs Ever Get Insured?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
April 1 2014 4:21 PM

My Obamacare Guinea Pigs

Where are they now?

Obamacare / healthcare.gov
Obed Suarez waits for healthcare.gov as he attempts to see what options would be available to him under the Affordable Care Act on Dec. 23, 2013 in Miami.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Six months ago, Slate posed some questions to the millions of people seeking new health insurance. Would they sign up for Obamacare? In the first installment, back in October, our intrepid insurance-seekers struggled and eventually failed to log on to healthcare.gov. In the second, they started to understand their options, but often snapped their laptops shut, unsatisfied.

Yesterday, the early enrollment period for the new health care exchanges came to an end. We checked in with our reporters to find out if they got the care they wanted, or if it was ripped away from them.

Aaron W., 33, Wilmington, Del.

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So I managed to enroll around Dec. 10 in time to have my platinum level coverage take effect on the first of January. Ultimately I ended up having to enroll on the phone since I could never get the website to work. I think trying to enroll during the first days of October made it so I couldn't log on to the website even with the staff trying to reset my account. I knew what plan I wanted and the only downside was that I couldn’t research the supplemental dental and vision plans I was going to select.

So I paid my first premiums toward the end of the month and I took advantage of the plan pretty quickly during the month of January and got a vision checkup, a colonoscopy, and started to see a therapist. I also started taking all the medications I had been prescribed but wasn't taking because of the costs. Strangely though, as I was going through all of this and talking about how awesome it was to have health insurance for the first time in more than a decade, my managers realized that I was someone they wanted to have in a formal full-time capacity at the liquor store I work at, and they changed my status from a part-time to full-time. I decided to get covered by their PPO, which is as good and perhaps a little better than the platinum level of the health care exchange, and less money to boot.

The only downside is the platinum plan had slightly lower medication costs, but the monthly savings more than take care of the difference. I think that for me, a reasonably unhealthy person who would have never been covered under the old health care regime, considering I had multiple pre-existing conditions, this has been an unmitigated success.

Toby Dillon, 36, Toole, Utah

So far, we’ve put about $500 into the pot and taken none out. It’s nice to have the security blanket of “If we find out I have cancer tomorrow, we’re not all on our own” but mostly, life continues apace with a premium that means I don’t get as many lunch-on-the-go opportunities as I’d like.

The only thing of note is how difficult it is to pay the premium. After signing up, paying the first month online, I kind of expected we’d pay online for each month. Somewhat interestingly, though, the company we’re with, which has been in business for at least a decade, has no online bill payment option. In fact, they don’t even have an option to talk with billing without specifically asking for it through a regular customer service rep. They send notices that say we haven’t paid and they’ll cancel our policy while, at the same time, saying that we’re paid up when I call. It’s almost Lovecraftian in the madness.

If I were a conspiracy theorist, I’d think they were trying to make it so that they have a paper trail to prove that we didn’t pay the premium and that’s why they cut off our benefits, when in fact they apparently make it as hard as possible to pay.

Erin Molnar, 25, Ferndale, Mich.

My son just turned 6 months old yesterday. We discovered with the help of the hospital that we could get a form of Medicaid for both our hospital stays and for his care thereafter. We have a high monthly deductible before it kicks in since we exceed the income requirements for Medicaid. So we have been paying for his well visits, sick visits, and immunizations out of pocket.

I have been unemployed since Sept. 13. I was just offered three jobs in the past few days. One is 30 hours a week, so it would not provide health benefits. The other two have good benefits packages, and the premiums are about one-fifth of what we would pay for a silver plan on the health exchanges, even with subsidies (which we wouldn't qualify for once I go back to work). The plans on the health exchange exceed 8 percent of our income. Had I been offered the part time job prior to these other offers, I would have taken it and we would have chosen not to buy insurance because of the high premiums.

We would rather have taken our chances; we simply don't have that much extra money per month. And honestly, paying out of pocket means we get discounts on services and don't have to ever fight with insurance companies for coverage. That being said, I will likely accept one of the offers with benefits. There are other reasons why, but the benefits are a factor. It's unfortunate that I still can't take a part-time job that might be better for my family because we can't afford health care otherwise.

Ali Diercks, 27, Hilton Head, S.C.

I did get signed up and I am now covered. But oh my god, was it a convoluted and long, hard road out of hell.

I started trying to sign up on the ACA website on Oct. 1 at 8 am and didn't succeed until Dec. 18. I tried almost daily. I got stuck at the identity verification stage on my first application and it couldn't be fixed. I had to create a second account in the marketplace, and I was finally able to apply.

I lost my job a month after I initially wrote to you, and as someone living paycheck-to-paycheck with no savings, this was terrifying. The insurance company I signed up with was created specifically for, or because of, the ACA, and at the time I chose my plan, they barely even had a website. Jan. 1 hit, and you still couldn't register, and there was no way to pay my premium. I was apoplectic. If I didn't pay my premium on time, I wouldn't be covered retroactively to Jan. 1, and there was no way to pay!

I needed coverage because my prescriptions were outrageous out of pocket. Everything came together, but at the 11th hour and operating on a dearth of information. I was able to get a crappy, low-paying job at the end of January, and there are no benefits for 90 days. I am covered in the interim for about $100/month including a subsidy. My deductible is very low at $250—I signed up for a Silver “HDHP,” which I understood to mean high deductible plan, but I'm not questioning how it ended up this way. So far it has been a major benefit to my life and I've gone to the doctor to be treated when I wouldn't have previously.

The stress and confusion of enrollment was infuriating and bordered on Kafkaesque. But ultimately I'm grateful to be covered. I can afford it in my present circumstances, and without the program I would be one serious illness or injury away from total ruin.

Tasha Huebner, 45, Silverton, Ore.

I'm in good shape. The Oregon website is still a disaster, as we all know, but I got my application in in plenty of time so that it could be processed in time, to have insurance coverage as of Jan. 1. (Cover Oregon wound up needing to hire 400-plus people to process all the applications by hand.) So, covered by Providence, paying $138 a month (would be $300 without a subsidy), reasonable deductible and OOP limit. I've had to use it this year to get a bad cough checked out, and get new prescriptions for my meds.

Initially I was told my migraine meds weren't covered, so I sent an outraged email to Providence, and they looked into it and took care of it. And it actually sounds like it might have been the pharmacy that screwed up by not calling them. I've also gotten the first round of bills from said doc appointments, and was pleasantly surprised that they looked exactly what they were supposed to, i.e. in terms of how much they would pay and what I'd pay.

So yes, it's worked out great for me. All the docs I'd want to see are covered as well.

Wendy Packard, 32, Chicago

I ended up calling the hotline in December, since I couldn't manage to get the website to work.  I would say the phone call was maybe 15 minutes, and I got signed up with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois. My payment is $140 a month, which is a lot for me. Fortunately I started a new project in January and the pay is good. But when this project ends, $140 a month is gonna become a burden. I guess I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. 

I wish they had explained insurance to me on the hotline, because I guess I don't really understand it.  I pay every month, but the deductible is like $5,000, so I don't think the insurance will ever pay anything for me.  One of my coworkers was trying to explain it to me ... I guess I'm a “young invincible,” although I'm not super young or super healthy. So my money goes to pay for other sicker people, I guess. 

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.