Beginning on January 1, 2014, I will be enrolled in a health insurance plan. This should be a mundane fact, unworthy of mentioning, but it isn’t. I have been uninsured for the last eight months, ever since I was dropped from my former employer’s plan after being laid off (fun fact: I was let go just after completing open enrollment in late 2013, so I wasted several hours evaluating my company’s new plans and selecting one, only to lose it two months later). Getting laid off is awful. Losing your health insurance as a result of getting laid off is just salt in that wound, a constant reminder of your new status on the fringe.
I can already hear the tsk, tsks. You lost your job and didn’t immediately secure health insurance for yourself?! Irresponsible! And there’s some truth to this. I have spent most of these eight months without health insurance worrying about the fact that I don’t have health insurance. I think of this era in my life as “That Time When I Would Have Preferred Death to Injury Because I Could Not Afford the Hospital Bill.” What a fun, exciting time. Here is how I spent it:
Step One: A Few Carefree Hours. Just before losing my health insurance, I milked it for almost all it was worth. I updated prescriptions and had a check-up. When my insurance lapsed, I wasn’t that freaked out because I had a clean bill of health. What could possibly go wrong? Hint: everything, which is why health insurance exists.
Step Two: Going Outside. Oh, shit. Have you ever noticed that the world is full of things that can maim you? Cars, angry dogs, poorly maintained sidewalks? Escalators are death traps, if you think about it, and I recommend that you don’t think about it. I took a part-time job as a photographer to help cover costs while I job hunted, and it required me to climb up ladders and into lofts and scramble across nets. These are fun things to do! But they are slightly less fun when you are constantly worried about imminent maiming.
Step Three: Exploring Shitty Options. Having determined that life without health insurance is risky and nervewracking, I looked into my options for individual health plans. They were terrible! I could stay on my employer’s old plan through COBRA, but my out-of-pocket costs would have been $700/month. What a perfect solution for the recently unemployed person trying to keep expenses down while she job hunts.
The other alternative was Washington DC’s pre-Obamacare insurance exchange. There, I found plans ranging from $100/month for bare-bones coverage to $500/month for decent coverage. I probably should have just signed up for one of these plans to assuage my imminent maiming fears. I actually went through the process of applying for a cheapo plan, but then…
Step Four: The False Hopes of the Almost Employed. Have we discussed the emotional and financial roller coaster that is job hunting? No? Let’s do it.
After six weeks without health insurance, I found myself right on the cusp of a new job. This right-on-the-cusp status lasted two whole months. I kept putting off buying a plan because it seemed like I was maybe two weeks away from starting a new job with health insurance. And I was! For a long time. During this period, I not only worried about developing a mysterious tumor, I also worried about getting in a car accident while driving to interviews.
Another fun fact: stress weakens your immune system, making you more susceptible to infection. I seemed to have a permanent head cold during this time. Nothing impresses potential employers more than a pocketful of tissues and the sniffles.
Step Five: Employment! With a Catch. I finally became a fully employed person again in June. This was a great relief, especially because it coincided with my landlord jacking up the rent. I was also getting really bored. Looking for a job is a job in itself, but it’s a really dull one.
So then I got health insurance and everything was great, right? Nope. Because even though I was working 40 hours a week (sometimes more), I was not a full-time employee with any one company. I now split my time between my photography job and a new consulting gig, and while together they pay the bills, neither one involves enough hours to get me on the company health plan. Back to the individual health care market I went.
Step Six: More Shitty Options. Back on the pre-Obamacare exchange, I found my priorities had shifted. Now that I was making an actual livable wage, it seemed short-sighted to sign up for some cheap insurance plan. Instead, I started really examining the more expensive plans in detail, weighing monthly premiums and deductibles against actual coverage, co-pays, and exclusions. It was a mess. I came close to just packing it all in and signing up for some plan in the middle several times, but felt frozen by my lack of knowledge.
This paralysis wound up being a good thing. It turns out that many of the plans I considered didn’t meet the requirements of Obamacare, and would have been cancelled this fall under the new regime. The downside, of course, was that I spent several more months uninsured, worrying about every stomach ache (ulcer?), headache (brain tumor?) and joint pain (torn ACL?).
Step 7: Obamacare, a Big Hassle With Results. Open enrollment for individual health insurance began on October 1st. It took me a month and a half to navigate the system, getting approved to shop for a plan, find a plan, and finally enroll in a plan. But today, I did it. Annoyingly, it doesn’t kick in until the first of the year. I just have another month and a half of fear and then I can be maimed in a car accident, no problem.
The process of enrolling was frustrating, I’ll admit. DC’s new exchange website, while not nearly as plagued as the federal one, is full of glitches. I had to fill out the same forms several times, and sometimes I’d log on to look at plans and would be kicked out with no explanation. These are all problems that need to be fixed, and I really wish they’d invest more heavily in making the technical stuff work before they launched the program.
But… I have health insurance. And thanks to Obamacare’s minimum requirements for all plans, I can feel confident that my coverage won’t be completely awful even though I still don’t fully understand it and probably won’t until I need health care and have to negotiate with my insurer to cover it. At least I know my plan had to pass some standard before it could be offered.
So, yes, complain about Obamacare. The roll out has been terrible and it needs to be fixed. But don’t act like everything was great before, and this new law is ruining our healthcare utopia. The American healthcare system is deeply flawed, particularly for people like me, who lost their jobs or don’t qualify for an employer-sponsored plan. Obamacare takes actual steps to address these deficiencies. If you’ve never worried about having health insurance, maybe you don’t care. I hope you never have to find out. For the rest of us, at least this administration had the courage to try and do something to make it better.