First Person: Getting Covered (in) California
First Person: Getting Covered (in) California
Covered California, the state's health care exchange, opened for business on Wednesday.
I was warned. This is what kept echoing in my mind as I pressed the refresh button yet again on the Covered California website in my hopes of enrolling in an affordable health insurance plan on opening day. I started my application around 1 p.m., and by 3:15, I wasn’t even halfway through. Had I known that by 3 p.m., the Covered CA website had already had 5 million hits, I still would have kept going. That’s how much affordable health insurance means to me.
As a freelance writer, I haven’t been able to afford health insurance. Companies I looked into when shopping for health insurance earlier this year wanted to charge me between $300 and $600 a month for coverage that included a deductible of $3,500. This was simply impossible for me to afford, especially since I live in Alameda, where rent and other living expenses are high.
When the “shop and compare” option became available on the Covered California website, I used it to find out how much health insurance would cost under the Affordable Care Act. I found that the lowest insurance plans would cost me around $30 a month with minimal coverage and a higher deductible (up to $5,000). The coverage I preferred would cost around $105 a month with a deductible of $500. This is more like it, I thought, especially for someone who goes to the doctor about once a year.
Based on these estimates, I was excited to enroll as soon as possible. When I heard that Republicans were urging the uninsured not to enroll in the Affordable Care Act in hopes this would somehow cause it to fail, I became determined to enroll on opening day to show my support, even though news stations were warning that high site traffic and glitches would cause delays.
My patience and resolve, however, were thoroughly tested while I filled out my application on Covered CA on October 1. The website tells you the application will take 30 minutes. As I struggled from page to page and time passed, I started to think the time estimates for each section were simply there to mock me.
Before someone can start an application, he or she has to create an account. My problems started here. It took me 20 minutes to get to the final page of the account setup only to be told that the username I had created at the beginning was already taken. Instead of just allowing me to change my username on the final page, the system sent me back to the front of the account setup, and I had to start the whole thing over. This was to be the first of many inconveniences I would suffer.
While I was filling out my application, I had to click the refresh button up to six times to get each page to load. When I was almost halfway through the application, the system seemed to stall even further. I clicked refresh on one page around 25 to 30 times, and the system eventually kicked me back to the beginning of the application, and everything I’d entered up to that point was erased. I tried logging out of the application and logging back in. This took many attempts, but when I finally got back into the application, the information I had entered was back. When I got the submission page, my celebration cheer came out more like a growl.
I finally submitted my application just after 4 p.m. So the estimated 30 minutes turned into a three-hour nightmare of cursing, hair pulling, and blank staring.
Besides the long wait times for pages to load, there were glitches as well. Most of the help links next to questions didn’t work. Sometimes I would refresh a page to find a few more questions present than had been there before. Sometimes a page wouldn’t let me enter a response.
Perhaps my biggest frustration, though, is that the Covered CA website isn’t friendly to freelance people like me who have a fluctuating income from month to month. The site instructs users to have their tax returns available, but on the income page, the site asks for “this month’s” income. It doesn’t specify whether this means the month just completed, since I was filling out the application on October 1, or if it meant to enter a projected estimate for the month just starting.
Since the site said to have tax returns and pay stubs, I assumed the income entered had to be verifiable. But what about those whose income varies drastically from month to month? Because I worked for a company full time last year, my yearly income is also drastically different, so I couldn’t really use last year’s income as a guide to providing monthly estimate for this year. I felt anything I entered would not give a realistic forecast of my yearly income, and the help links were useless on this page because they didn’t go over these types of circumstances. It would have been easier for me to just use my income from last year from my tax return even if I have to pay a little more for health insurance until the current year’s taxes are complete.
When I got to the end of the application, I called Covered CA to see if I had filled everything out correctly because my options were different (different, as in, cheaper) than what the shop and compare tool had estimated. It took me 15 minutes to connect with someone, but the representative I spoke to was very friendly; unfortunately, he didn’t really know how to answer my questions. He said it seemed I’d done everything correctly and to trust the website’s decisions.
After what turned out to be a more torturous experience than what I expected, do I now have doubts about the Affordable Care Act? Absolutely not. I would go through much more to get affordable health insurance. I experience more stress every day worrying about getting an infection from a paper cut, tripping over a curb and breaking a bone, or even getting a disease like cancer and having to face a hospital bill I can’t afford on my own.
I’ve heard people using glitches and wait times to criticize the Affordable Care Act, but this is a new program that serves a phenomenal amount of people. There are going to be glitches and wait times. Change is never easy, and healthcare is definitely something that’s been needing a change for a long time in America. People need to be patient and provide feedback so glitches and issues can be resolved. A program can’t be judged before it’s been given time to operate and before administrators have streamlined the program based on user feedback. I’m grateful I was determined enough to keep trying, and I’m grateful to have affordable health insurance for the new year.