I Navigated Healthcare.gov and Lived To Tell About It

Group of runners in a cross country race.
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I've never given a whole lot of thought to my health. At my old job, I'd sign up for the 3.5-mile Corporate Challenge race each spring. I figured, if I could complete the run without collapsing, I was healthy enough that year.

Of course, another thing about that job was that I had a pretty solid benefits package. So I applied once and forgot about it. I skipped the "open enrollment" meetings every year (and the 40,000 emails alerting me to these meetings). Thanks, but no changes for me.

From Employer Coverage to Individual

But then I decided to go the self-employment route. And as 2013 began, I found myself facing the prospect of not having employer-provided healthcare for the first time in 20 years. Uggh, I hate this kind of stuff, but I forced myself to query other freelancers I knew, and a couple of doctors, and Julia my dental hygienist. Their advice was very helpful, although in New Jersey (where I live), the process ended up being much less complicated than I had anticipated. There were very few options, almost no paperwork, and boom, I was covered.

That was certainly reassuring. And yet, as a freelancer with a -- shall we say -- "fluctuating" income, insurance premiums were a much larger chunk of my earnings than I was happy with. So I was very eagerly awaiting the Affordable Care Act going into effect. I was even enthusiastic after my insurance company sent me a letter this summer, saying that because of changes they'd need to make, I wouldn't be able to renew my policy. D'ohh!

Website Attempt #1

I had already decided that I'd wait a few days to try the healthcare.gov website. I tend to avoid crowds, be it Black Friday, lines outside bars, or bandwidth-challenged URLs. Also, my old I.T. buddy Elliott always recommended staying away from any technology upon its initial release. There were always bugs, so just hold off till version 2.0.

So the second week of October, when I finally tried to log on and got a message that the site was jammed, I was disappointed but not shocked. I'd wait it out -- through the press conferences, partisan bickering, Saturday Night Live sketches, and on and on. There was really no rush.

Website Attempt #2

At the end of November, when they said the site was, at last, all ready to go, I decided I'd hang back just a little bit longer. And on a quiet December day when I hadn't heard a single news story referencing "Obamacare," I gave it another shot.

You know what? It worked pretty well.

Oh, don't get me wrong: There was still a "We're very busy right now" notice on the site. But now there was an option to enter your e-mail address, and they'd let you know when the site was good-to-go. A similar "callback" system works pretty well with my power and water companies, when their phone systems have massive waits. So I tried it. Sure enough, the federal government e-mailed me later that evening. There was a link, and an explanation that if I clicked it within 24 hours, I'd basically "skip the line" on the healthcare website. And that's indeed what happened.

Keep in mind that I'm in New Jersey, which hasn't established a state-run insurance marketplace. So the federal government is running our program. Your online experience may be different.

What I found was a clearly designed, simple-to-follow website. There are questions to confirm your identity. It is a little scary how much the government knows about us. For example, to make sure that I was really Jack Silbert, there was a multiple-choice question: Which of the following are the last four digits of your cellphone number? Wait, how do they know that?!? It's a good thing they didn't find out I have Edward Snowden on speed dial.

There are also questions about your income, and whether there are anticipated changes in your earnings for 2014. This is all to see what subsidies you might be qualified for, to be subtracted from your monthly premiums.

I Find a Bug

And that was about it. My registration was complete. On to the next step... which is when I encountered a bug in the system. Dang it, everything had been going so well!

The site informs you to review your "eligibility results" prior to enrolling for coverage. When I clicked to see my results, an 11-page PDF file popped up on my screen -- and it was mostly blank. Oh great, what do I do now?

OK, no need to panic, there was toll-free number (and also a "live chat") which it said could be accessed 24 hours a day. I called and braced myself for a robot voice: "Your estimated wait time is... 47 days." But in fact, I was connected right away -- to Sherry, in Texas, who was as nice and helpful as could possibly be.

She confirmed my identity (and thought it was amusing that my ZIP code starts with a zero -- I never really thought about that). Sherry then quickly looked up my application, and read my subsidy results to me over the phone. If I wanted, she was more than happy to stay on the line with me and walk me through the rest of the process. I thanked her but said I'd like to try it myself. I'm generally pretty handy with these new-fangled computer machines.

Comparing the Options

Your insurance options will be different from mine, so I won't get into specifics. But suffice to say, there were "silver, bronze, gold, and platinum" categories, with different companies and plans to choose among. Premiums, deductibles, and levels of coverage varied. For me, a plan with the very same company I currently have insurance with will have much more comprehensive coverage, for about half the cost. That seems pretty excellent to me.

There has been controversy and so much back-and-forth about the Affordable Care Act for years now, and I really don't want to get into that. All I know is, I'm still hoping not to collapse during a 5K race. But just in case I do, I can get some care, and it will be affordable.