First Person: Getting Covered (in) California

First Person: Getting Covered (in) California

Janice Worthen

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.


Submitted by luczai (not verified) on Mon, Oct 7, 2013

Thank you, Janice. This is exactly what people need to hear. I've heard complaints from people that the premiums were higher than the ones they pay at work. Duh! If you have a job and you have health insurance, the program wasn't designed for you. Be grateful. In my case, I don't really benefit because even though our actual income is very low, we have been withdrawing from our retirement accounts and paying taxes and penalties, so our income is too high to get help with the premiums. Still, I'm glad the plan is there for those like you who will benefit. At least we have retirement savings we can tap into. For us, the biggest asset of the Affordable Care Act is that, come January 1st when our COBRA plan runs out, we will be able to change insurance companies if it gives us a lower cost. Up until now, pre-existing conditions have prevented it. I hope this will improve competition among insurance companies, because I'm sure many others like us have been held hostage for this reason.

Submitted by Dudervision (not verified) on Mon, Oct 7, 2013

I jumped through the hoops Tuesday. It took me most of the morning to register with the site and, by the end of the day, I'd signed up for a plan. informed me that I'd hear from the insurer about the middle of November. Friday, I got a thick envelope from Kaiser (my current insurer and who I was staying with through the ACA). I thought it must be the conversion plan info I'd expected since I lost my COBRA the end of August. I was surprised to find all the information about my new ACA Silver coverage and confirmation I'd be rolled over to it January 1st. Yes, it took some time, but I was impressed with how quickly things worked once I was in the system. I even found it was $3 less than the original quote. That's a cup of coffee per month..yea!

Submitted by dc (not verified) on Mon, Oct 7, 2013

Please tell me why I should subsidize your insurance payment. Is it just because you exist?

Submitted by cd (not verified) on Mon, Oct 7, 2013

The number of hits on the website were dramatically smaller than originally reported, around 675,000. I have attempted to apply on the website everyday since Monday without success. I am really suprised anyone has purchased insurance on the website because there is no information on participating hospials or doctors on the website.

Submitted by O. Rob (not verified) on Mon, Oct 7, 2013

For a family of four with 2 young children that makes just over 100,000 a year - (not a lot in the Bay Area) there are no subsidies and coverage is over $1000.00 per month. Why/how is this affordable?

One reason why a lot of people are upset - is not because there are subsidies to lower income folks - but rather because there is a large middle income group that is being screwed over. At least from my vantage point - the term "Affordable" is a misnomer.

Submitted by luczai (not verified) on Mon, Oct 7, 2013

I'm glad you asked, dc. This article in Vanity Fair explains why the ACA is going to help lower your insurance costs even if you are already insured. Your premiums and expenses are currently as high as they are because you are having to absorb the costs of those who rely on the ER for healthcare.

Submitted by jk (not verified) on Mon, Oct 7, 2013

I too am happy for the people this helps, but as a 57 year old full time employee I would have to pay approx. $650 per month for the Bronze, and I couldn't afford the deductible to go to the doc, so looks like I am still going to be uninsured, or sell my house...

Submitted by Bill (not verified) on Tue, Oct 8, 2013

I set-up an account on Wednesday and did not have time to complete all of the information requested. I've been trying to log in to my account but the Covered California website refuses to recognize my username and password combination! The website allows me to change my password so I did so while under the impression that maybe I had my password wrong. But no, I still can not log in! I called 1-800-300-1506 and they were able to help me with filling in the necessary information but after 45 minutes, the customer service reps computer crashed! I've spent 6 hours over 3 days on this already and have yet to get anywhere on the application.

QUESTION: Is anyone else having this same login problem? I'm wondering if the "Credit Freeze" I placed on my credit may be influencing this, because that same "Credit Freeze" keeps me from setting up a social security "account" online.

Submitted by Jessica (not verified) on Tue, Oct 8, 2013

I have spent three days trying to complete my application on line, I had to review my application and found an error on my daughter's birthdate so I tried to go back to the edit page to fix it but the site won't let me..I keep getting error messages # 133570. I have already spent too much time filling out this application it is frustrating. I downloaded the paper application and that is about 36 pages long. I hope I can get this done already by the end of this week.

Submitted by Bill W (not verified) on Wed, Oct 9, 2013

You live in an area with expensive housing and high cost of living, by your own description. You had steady employment last year, but now your income is unpredictable month to month because you are a freelance writer. If you undertook this career risk voluntarily, then you are asking a lot for your fellow citizens to subsidize your lifestyle choice. The actual cost of coverage is probably still around $300 per month, however, under ACA somebody else pays the remaining 90%.

That's "fairness" in the mind of a Progressive. Even more fair is the third-year law student in Connecticut who had been covered by a student plan for $39 per month. He went onto the exchange site and found that he qualified for Medicaid, so a soon-to-be high earner once paying his own way is now entirely subsidized.

Submitted by luczai (not verified) on Wed, Oct 9, 2013

Please stop acting like full-time jobs with benefits are there for the taking, Bill W. Lots of people, especially older workers who were laid off due to the economy and those just out of school are trying hard and not finding anything. Is it fair that some CEO's make more than 1,000 times the salary of their average worker--sometimes even when their job performance isn't up to snuff? Even when they get fired, golden parachutes protect them. You should be angry at the corporate and high income earner tax breaks that siphon money from the general fund, not people just trying to survive.

Submitted by Hill (not verified) on Wed, Oct 9, 2013

Sometimes people do not choose to take career risks. They might be forced to due to the downsizing or other lay offs. This is a very volatile market. Sometimes having fluctuating income is not a matter or choice but of necessity. And I do not think it is too much too ask for government subsidies for the poor and middle class when huge farm conglomerates are getting millions if not billions in farm subsidies. And here is a fun fact: insured people are already fronting the cost for the uninsured. When uninsured go to the ER and rack up a bill that they can't afford that bill gets transferred to the insured in higher fees and premiums. It also leads to lower quality care for all! If everyone is insured costs will go down because the previously uninsured will get preventative care, stop overcrowding ERs for routine procedures, and live longer so they can add more to the pot through premiums. This will increase the quality of care and decrease overall costs. If you want specific numbers check out

Submitted by dav (not verified) on Sun, Oct 13, 2013

it makes no sense to pay the premium if you cant pay the co pays and deductible. this is a huge scam . the only people it helps are people with pre existing that have money for deductible and the insurance companies cashing the premium checks. the young and healthy and poor that cant pay deductible are getting screwed.