I have never gone a day in my life without health insurance, but it is looking increasingly likely that I will miss the Dec. 23 open enrollment deadline and be uninsured as of January 1. Meanwhile, the patient, friendly customer service representative on the phone with me is trying to reassure me that this is, in fact, the optimum scenario.
“We know that everyone wants to be fully covered from January 1, but legally you are only required to have health care for nine months out of the year, so it’s going to be okay if it takes that first three months to sort everything out.” Her voice is calm, comforting. She’s letting me know that I will not get into any legal trouble, simply because a website called WAHealthPlanFinder.org is not working.
I’m a freelancer (specifically, a hack writer), meaning my health insurance future is tied 100% to the functionality of the ACA exchange websites. In Washington State, you don’t apply for health care through Healthcare.gov; instead, you are sent to the aforementioned WAHealthPlanFinder.org, a website that has been operating with extremely limited success.
How limited? I’ve been trying to apply for health insurance since Oct. 1, and have gotten the same error code—the bizarre “ID Proofing Connection / Validation. null”—since the first day of the application. I get this code whenever I try to enter my name and address into the system; that’s how broken these forms currently are. When I get the error code, it comes with a number that I need to call, to continue my application. When you dial that number, you learn that it is not taking calls.
A quick trip to the Washington Health Plan Finder Facebook page shows that my experience is not an anomaly. Since customer service is non-existent, the page is crammed full of messages from people asking about error codes and how to actually contact a navigator or broker who can help them. Everyone is worried about the deadline. A lot of people are worried about their kids. No one from Washington Health Plan Finder is answering any of these Facebook messages.
At this point in my quest to obtain health insurance, I’ve ditched WAHealthPlanFinder.org as a viable source of insurance and am instead on the phone with a CSR for Premera, the Blue Cross Blue Shield outpost in Seattle. She’s the woman who’s telling me not to worry about going to jail or getting a fine. She’s also the woman telling me that I should not try to apply for Premera insurance directly, even though the “Apply Now!” button is taunting me from my open browser.
“I’d like that plan,” I tell her. “The bronze one, at $212 a month. Can I apply for that now?”
“You really should wait and apply through the exchange,” she says. “Maybe it will start working this afternoon!”
There’s one more wrinkle in my health insurance story, and it has to do with my previous insurer. I have, by definition, always been insured; however, I’ve viewed these high-deductible, minimal-benefit insurance plans mostly as bankruptcy protection and not as a method of actually getting health care. These are the plans that President Obama wanted to flush out of the system; the ones that don’t actually protect their patients. Last year, for example, I had a 104-degree fever that wouldn’t break. The visit to the walk-in clinic, including a next-day follow-up, cost $800 out of pocket.
So I was fully expecting the letter from my insurer informing me that my current health insurance plan was not ACA-compliant and would become void as of January 1. I was mildly amused to receive a second letter from the insurer in early December, announcing that they were—surprise!—now offering ACA-compliant plans and that I would be auto-enrolled in a plan that, as it turns out, is not effective in Seattle. I’ve called that insurer, requesting that they un-enroll me from this plan I cannot actually use, and learned that they will not un-enroll me until I prove that I have other health insurance, assumedly since it is now illegal to not have health insurance, though I do not know for sure, since they will not tell me.
“But I live in Seattle now,” I keep saying. “Your plan does not cover this area. Can you un-enroll me?”
This means that if the WAHealthPlanFinder.org exchange doesn’t start working in the next two or three days, or if I am unable to convince a third-party insurer to take me on despite my inability to access the exchange, I will in fact be uninsured as of January 1. I mean, technically I’ll be receiving a bill for health insurance, but it’s for a plan that does not cover Seattle and won’t do me any good if I actually need health care.
But—as the customer service representative so calmly assured me—it’s okay. I won’t get in any legal trouble. And there will be lots of other people out there just like me.