(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

As a journalist I’ve covered the Affordable Care Act on and off since it was a gleam in President Obama’s eye. The melodrama of the fierce legislative fight; the subsequent relentless attacks against it; the Supreme Court case; and the catastrophic rollout of healthcare.gov — good times for the news media, though not necessarily the American public.

But of course, the difference between covering something as a journalist and experiencing it as a citizen is substantial. Last year, in part for health reasons, I gave up my full-time job with KQED News. No more long hours: check. No more crazy deadlines: check. No more health insurance: check … my blood pressure. Because our COBRA costs were going to be astronomical, like 40-percent-of-income astronomical. And my health history rendered me uninsurable on the individual market. At least, on the old insurance market.

All of this made me one of the many poster-children for Obamacare, under which insurance companies, starting Jan. 1, would be required to insure my middle-aged ass, and the government was going to help pay for it to boot. Whether this is a victory for common sense and decency, the end of democracy as we know it, or simply a bad idea, I couldn’t say — and still can’t. I only know that the only rational financial decision, personally, was to try getting an exchange plan through Covered California.

Which I did. But not without a fair amount of anxiety due to delays and quirks in the system.

But where’s my premium reduction?

The website experience, though not as smooth as buying a plane ticket or TV online — as the president once promised — for the most part worked at expected. The most immediately noticeable advantage: In the past, when shopping for insurance on the individual market, I’d had to call up each potential provider and carefully take notes on rates, deductibles, etc. Here, all that information was laid out so I could quickly compare across plans.

My first unwelcome surprise, however, came when I input all my information, including my estimated income, and was told by the system that my premium wasn’t going to be reduced through a federal subsidy, one of the key components supposed to make Obamacare affordable. I knew this didn’t make sense, because my income estimate was well within the range that would make me eligible to receive federal money.

I called up an insurance agent who had sent me an email offering to help me sign up, part of an outreach program by Covered California. But he had no idea why the system wasn’t giving me a subsidy. Nor did he know why I had received a letter from the exchange asking me to provide the social security cards for every member of my family.

So I waited a half-hour on hold to get through to Covered California, and the customer service person was pretty patient and knowledgeable, except for the fact that she too was mystified as to why the system wasn’t taking into account the subsidized premium reduction. After she tried various fixes, I suggested it might have something to do with my status as a COBRA participant. (I had read something about COBRA and subsidies.) After some fiddling on her end, the system finally recognized my premium reduction.

The problem, as I have since learned: Active COBRA participants aren’t eligible for subsidies. But if you time your COBRA insurance to end just before your exchange plan begins — always my intent — you are eligible.

“If someone has COBRA currently and it’s still open enrollment, they can cancel their COBRA and enroll in a Covered CA plan with federal subsidies, if otherwise eligible,” Covered California spokesperson Anne Gonzales wrote me. But, she said, “It’s very important to tell consumers that they cannot have COBRA and federal subsidies at the same time. They have to time it just right.”

So that’s what I did. But the enrollment process I went through seemed to make no provision for that maneuver. Which makes me wonder if there have been people trying to transition out of COBRA who have decided not to purchase an exchange plan because they erroneously thought they were ineligible for a subsidy.

As for the request for copies of my family’s social security cards, the customer service rep informed me I didn’t actually need to provide them, which was a relief because I’d lost mine. She said the correspondence I had received was a “form letter” and that if I looked at my account online, the actual card wasn’t one of the documents I needed to complete my enrollment. (Some enrollees may indeed need to scan or fax in a copy of their card, says Anne Gonzales.)

The long, slow wait: “I guess we have insurance now?”

After completing my enrollment, I felt a sense of measured relief. Why measured? Because I realized I’d never received a confirmation email from either Kaiser or Covered California letting me know that I was in the system. With headlines about the “train wreck” that was Obamacare, this left me uneasy. What if I only thought I was covered? “I guess we have insurance now?” I said to my wife, not exactly a slogan for an Affordable Care Act campaign.

At that point I waited. And waited some more. I called Kaiser, and they said they still hadn’t received any information from Covered California. I went in person to the Kaiser business office to check it out. When I told the woman there I had a question about Covered California, she gave me a hard stare and shook her head like I had just asked her to explain the meaning of life. There were a lot of people confused about just what was going on, she said. She looked me up in Kaiser’s system and said they had no information on my signup from the exchange but that things were so backed up I should be patient and keep checking.

Which I did. And did some more. Meanwhile, over at Covered California, all they could tell me was that I had indeed signed up and that Kaiser would eventually get the data they needed. Before Jan. 6, the deadline to make your first payment? (Later extended to Jan 15). “Uh …. yeah… hopefully,” the rep said, in so many words. I called up Kaiser and asked what if they didn’t have my invoice before the deadline? Would they still consider me insured if I had signed up through the exchange? “We’ll cross that bridge when we have to,” I was told. (Last week, a spokesperson for Kaiser told me it would not withhold care due to processing delays. Anne Gonzales said all participating insurance companies would do the same if there was “a good faith effort by an enrollee to start an application by Dec 23,” which was the deadline to enroll in a plan.)

As New Year’s approached, I tried another tack: maybe the online chat help at Covered California had some new info on the matter. After waiting in an online queue about a half-hour, I finally was connected with someone on the chat line. Only her answers to my questions, while making a sound on my computer, didn’t actually render as text. More frustration.

On Jan. 2, I tried Kaiser again to see if my number, as it were, had finally come up. I got a brief recorded message telling me to try later due to high caller volume. Then, on Jan. 3, after 35 minutes on hold, I finally connected with a rep. And she told  me, yes, I was in the system. Eureka! Before she had a chance to change her mind, I whipped out my credit card and paid by phone, making sure to get a confirmation number.

It took roughly five weeks between the time I enrolled in Covered California and the time Kaiser processed my info so that I could actually pay, which is at least the emotional demarcation point between believing you’re insured and knowing you’re insured. (Kaiser researched my particular delay and told me Covered California did not transmit my enrollment information until Dec. 27. Why? Who knows…)

Winners and losers

Nationally, the insurance-buying public can expect more problems, it would seem. The Guardian ran a story Sunday about how the administration’s enrollee numbers could take a big hit if consumers, either through processing delays or ignorance of the final date for payment, miss Wednesday’s deadline.

But if all goes smoothly from here on out, it is quite true that I, personally, am going to be one of the winners in the Obamacare game, receiving guaranteed insurance at a big cost savings. And by big, I mean about 60 percent, or thousands of dollars per year.

Not everyone is experiencing that, of course: Cancellations of individual policies that seemed to put the lie to the president’s now notorious “If you like your insurance, you can keep it,” message have been well-reported, as has the sticker shock when some of those cancelled customers shopped for a replacement policy on an exchange .

For me, though, I’d have to say the entire process was a little like my recent mortgage refinancing: frustrating and riddled with potential pitfalls at every step, but with a big financial benefit as the end result.

For others who have signed up for insurance through Covered California — or at least thought they were signed up — we’re interested in your experiences. Let us know in the comments below.

My Five-Week Saga Enrolling in Covered California 15 January,2014Jon Brooks

  • Amanda

    I signed up last month for Coverd California (Kaiser). From start to finish it took me approximately 35 minutes with the help of a phone agent. I received a confirmation email and have since used my new coverage. It’s odd that the success stories rarely get written about. My Kaiser premiums also went from $610 a month (just for me) to a little over $250. Not only is my premium lower but I have better coverage (Kaiser Platinum plan).

  • EB

    Today is the 15th of January. Yesterday I got an e mail from a certified insurance broker, who I have been working with, for the entire however many months it has been since Obamacare came our way. he said that he had verbal confirmation that I was accepted by Anthem.

    I’m 63. I was 62, when I started. Up till Obamacare came along, I was insured, as an individual, by Aetna. Aetna pulled out of California and gave me to Dec 31 to find new insurance.

    I’ve been insured for thirty years or more. It was never difficult. The biggest health issue I had in that period was falling off my horse, and breaking a rib.

    I’ve been a client (not really a patient) of PAMF, Palo Alto Medical Clinic for decades. They have my records, not that there is very much there.

    I’m told that Anthem Blue Cross has no agreement withPAMF for individual plans.

    It looks as though, if I ever get written confirmation that I have insurance from Anthem, I’ll need to find a new set of doctors.

    Fortunately, I’ll have pediatric dental coverage (for all those kids I’m planning on fathering this month!) on the new plan, and it only costs a thousand a year more than Aetna.

    I’ll take the free market any day over this.

  • Sarah

    I don’t want to minimize all your work and hassles and uncertainty…but to me, because of my recent 60 or so phone calls between administrations (clinics, hospitals, Partnership to Health/Medi-cal), this sounds like a breeze, because of all the hassles I’ve been going through the last few months attempting to get an M.R.I. through Medi-cal (which I just obtained) – many of them because of administrative systems and delays, and way more because of Kaiser’s bureaucracy and some human errors and miscommunications along the way.

  • Name

    Lucky you it only took five weeks, it took me four months! Unable to transmit an e-mail application to Covered California because of all the glitches, downtimes, etc., I ended up submitting a paper application in November-which after many phone calls to CC to determine the status, was finally told in January that I was enrolled. But then, I received a letter asking for confirmation of my finances, so I faxed a copy of my last federal return. Again-nothing-so, I called Blue Shield-no record in their system I was told. A few days later I got an e-mail from BS with a website indicated to make my premium payment. Guess what? It didn’t work! I was finally able to contact the company in Florida that handles Blue Shield’s premium payments and given the same website, so I tried again and was able to register, however, although it said “account created,” it didn’t register the payment from my credit card. I spoke with the rep again and he was able to schedule my payment and give me a confirmation number. Now, I was told I will be receiving an ID card within the next ten to twelve days. At this point, I’ll believe it when I see it. The paper said that one in four Californian’s are eligible for Medi-Cal-can you say, “higher premiums,” are coming-my premium is ten percent of my monthly income. Affordable Care Act, my butt!

  • Cattnip

    You gave up your group health insurance so the TAXPAYER could subsidize your individual plan? The “government” is not subsidizing your plan, I AM.

    As for premium costs, if you make $63,000 for a family of two, you do not get a subsidy and you get to pay $979 for a Silver plan. The plan I have now is $365 with better benefits. Congress makes on average $175,000 and they get a 72% subsidy. What’s wrong with this picture?

  • Marshall

    Me paying for indigents to get

    “free” health care is no different than me paying to protect indigents from foreign military attack. I pay taxes therefore I earn my right to such protection. Why should the so-called “poor” get a free ride on that score?


Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks is the host and editor of KQED’s health and technology blog, Future of You. He is the former editor of KQED’s daily news blog, News Fix. In 2014, he won a California Journalism Award for his coverage of ride services like Uber and Lyft and the taxi industry. A veteran blogger, he previously worked for Yahoo! in various news writing and editing roles. Jon is also a playwright whose work has been produced in San Francisco, New York, Italy, and around the U.S. He has written about film for his own blog and studied film at Boston University. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Brooklyn College.

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