A disheartening visit to Healthcare.gov

Earlier, John Aravosis shared his experience when he tried to get some information from the Obamacare Healthcare.gov “exchange” website (John’s post included some funny video of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show treatment of the Web site debacle). I thought I’d go ahead and share my experience with HealthCare.gov, following the rough chronology of events.

The reason why my experience is a tad different is that, unlike John, who was checking out Illinois policies (which are currently run by the federal exchange) for his sister, this isn’t just a matter of curiosity or reporting. I have to use the site if I want health insurance. (Well, maybe… more on that later in the post.)

Although my state, New Mexico, has said it will operate its own health insurance exchange — and in the past, before PPACA, has done so — for some unknown reason they decided to go with the Healthcare.gov portal this year.

My opinion: Bad idea. Terrible idea.

The temporary high-risk pool actually worked for many of us

Right now, and for the last two years, I’ve been enrolled in Obamacare’s “temporary high-risk pool.” Why? Because until the ‘Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA)’, no insurance company in the states where I’ve lived would write me a policy due to pre-existing conditions.

My ineligibility for insurance dates back to 2003 when a professional group to which I belonged lost its insurance underwriter, throwing me and everyone else out onto the individual insurance market.

There, I soon learned that two chronic but relatively mild conditions I have make me ineligible for private individual insurance at any price: Hay-fever allergies and migraine headaches.

Don’t believe me?

Here’s the letter from the last time I tried to apply, in February 2012. It’s almost word-for-word identical to the rejections I received over the years from Blue Cross of California, HealthNet, Pacificare, BC of NM, and a whole host of other insurance companies.

My 2012 health insurance rejection (redacted)

My 2012 health insurance rejection (redacted)

The upside of that letter was that, due to PPACA (aka ‘Obamacare’), for the first time I was able to take the rejection and use it to apply for insurance in the temporary high-risk pool. (And who would’ve thunk it: Migraine headaches and seasonal hay-fever allergies as ‘high risk’?!)

The PPACA high-risk pool application process couldn’t have been more simple. New Mexico has its own low-income / self-employed insurance program, but it’s hard to get into due to a lack of funding and months- or years-long waiting lists. Nevertheless, it was the same web-portal, and there I was able to browse all the plans available to me. Exact coverage definitions, benefits, deductibles and co-pays, premiums — it was all right there. Easy to compare plans, too.

I picked a plan with a moderate deductible and co-pay. Probably it would equal a ‘Silver’-level plan under the new exchanges. My business has gotten better since 2012, so I’m hoping for 2014 I can upgrade to Gold.

Anyway, in March 2012, I filled out a downloadable application for the high-risk pool insurance, sent it in along with a check, another form and the previous year’s 1040 tax form to prove eligibility for premium assistance, and crossed my fingers.

Less than two weeks later, for the first time in more than eight years, I had health insurance. Not great insurance, but a damned sight better than none.

In a way, I wish I could just leave it be until this mess is sorted out, but unfortunately the temporary pool is being phased out. So I have to get new insurance.

My Obamacare / Healthcare.gov experience has been pretty awful

Here’s a rough chronological account of my Healthcare.gov experiences over the last few weeks:

Tuesday, October 1: Tried to sign up for a login. Failed because the site kept crashing and/or was unavailable.

Wednesday, October 2: Tried again. Managed to get a login, but it didn’t work. Kept hanging on the security questions.

Thursday, October 3: Applied for another login, didn’t work. It claimed success, but wouldn’t actually log me in.

Friday, October 4: Neither of my two logins worked — both listed as invalid. So I applied for another. It finally worked and is the one that has functioned since. Unfortunately late that night, the site went down and stayed that way over the weekend. Before then though, it wanted me to go through an identity verification process and guess what? That failed.

I answered the questions. The system hangs. I know I gave the right answers, but for some reason the site couldn’t verify my identity. I suspect it was network timeouts. They try to send me to Experian (the credit rating company). After half an hour on the phone I hang up. I decide to wait a couple days and try again.

After this, it gets kind of fuzzy because I no longer remember which days I did what, so I’ll go by the week:

Week of October 7-11: Finally, that last login works consistently, although the site is up and down like a whack-a-mole. I just want to see what plans are available for me as a 50 year old non-smoking woman living in New Mexico. That information isn’t available.

Moreover, the site — as John indicated — essentially wants to force me to: (1) go through the ENTIRE application process just to browse plans; and (2) wants to run a full credit check on me before I’m allowed do so. It was literally easier applying for a mortgage last autumn than to go through this.

It turns out my failed attempts the previous week meant I’d exhausted my ID verification attempts. Now it wants documented proof. (The same thing happened to John when he was looking into plans for his sister.) So I scan my New Mexico driver’s license and attempt to upload it. The website refuses to take the file. And it crashes again.

Healthcare.gov wants me to guess next year’s income – good luck with that

In filling out an application, to determine eligibility for premium subsidies, they wanted me to estimate my 2014 income. I’m sorry, but small business owners and the self-employed are never going to be able to do that with any degree of accuracy. It’s just impossible.

I can probably ballpark within about 10-20% my 2013 gross receipts, but until I meet with my accountant and have him deal with my ridiculously complicated taxes, I won’t know what my taxable income actually was.

Yet Healthcare.gov actually wants me to guess how much I’m going to make next year when I have no idea how good or bad a year it’ll be in terms of landing clients and contracts? (And yes, it’s clear from the wording they’re not asking what I’ll file on April 15th 2014 for my 2013 earnings — they are literally asking me how much money I anticipate making next year.) Any number I pull out of my butt will be a lie.

Further muddying the waters? The repeal of part 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). My wife and I are, finally, legally married in the eyes of our Federal government. She’s on Medicare and collects Social Security. In past years, we’ve simply divided our business income between us in whatever way makes the most tax-sense. We’ve never filed a tax return as a married couple before.

We don’t even know yet if New Mexico will allow us to file jointly, or if we will be forced to file separately. So again, I have no idea what my official “income” will be this year on my taxes.

Week of October 14-18: Early in the week, I decide to try the driver’s license scan upload again. It works. But my status never changes. So a few days later, I try again. Finally, it said ‘Identity verification pending.’

Identity verification pending...and pending...and pending

Identity verification pending…and pending…and pending

As of October 23rd, it’ll be a week later, and still nada. No notification. I can’t even finish my application.

But at least I can finally browse plans! Or not.

So now, as John noted earlier, there appears a button on the front page of Healthcare.gov that supposedly lets me browse plans, despite the fact I still cannot apply for anything.  (Though, if my experience is anything like John’s, they didn’t really let him ‘browse’ any plans – he was permitted to see the name of several plans, and how much they cost, but not any information as to what the plans actually cover. So that’s not really browsing. It’s teasing.)

Hmm… okay, let’s press that and see what it does. How about that — after several unnecessary screens, it takes me back to where I started on October 1 — the BeWellNM.com New Mexico health insurance exchange portal. It has a big banner at the top that reads as follows:

Thank you for visiting the NMHIX.

Due to heavy volume on the federal website (healthcare.gov), those shopping for individual and family insurance plans may experience difficulty signing up. Experts are working to resolve this problem as soon as possible. We apologize for any inconvenience.

In the meantime, assistance is still available. Contact our call center toll free at 1-855-99-NMHIX or find a live Health Care Guide, agent or broker near you.

If you’d like to review plan summaries and premiums that are available to individuals on the exchange, go to http://nmhealthratereview.com/about.aspx for PDF downloads.

Remember, you have until early December of 2013 to sign up for insurance coverage that will begin January 1, 2014.

And that NM Health Rate Review link? It hauls me over to a completely different New Mexico agency, the Office of Superintendent of Insurance. And a table with five carriers and the names of various plans, but no details.

The utterly unhelpful page that supposedly lists health insurance policies in New Mexico

The utterly unhelpful page that supposedly lists health insurance policies in New Mexico

There are links to details, but no easy way to compare them. Every plan link is a separate PDF. The downloadable premium rates PDF file is all but unreadable and contains no information about the Platinum or Platinum-plus plans. Plus, of course, there is no information anywhere about the tax credits and/or premium subsidies.

But wait, there’s help right?

That first page back at BeWellNM.com, probably soon to be rebranded as NMHIX judging from the banner, said there were also links to Health Care Guides as well as Agents and Brokers.

I click on the first link to see who these ‘Guides’ are and it pulls up a page with a super-teeny embedded Google map and lots of marked locations on it in the Albuquerque area. Some of them are health clinics, which kind of makes sense. I have to assume I’d just call them and make an appointment or something, but it’s not clear. Some of them are clinics I’d have no business going to, such as one for pregnancy and another for drug addiction treatment.

Even weirder though: Some of the locations on the map are middle and high schools. Huh? “Hello Grant Middle School, I’d like someone to help me sign up for health insurance.” Oh, the balloon pop-ups seem to indicate there will be times — usually on Friday afternoons — when there will be someone onsite to help out. Gee, that’s gonna be useful for people who have jobs… Not.

Now dive with me down the rabbit hole known as the NMHIX “Agents and Brokers” page. It’s a list of people’s names, addresses, and email address links. No indication at all whether these are licensed insurance brokers or which company they might be affiliated with. Lots of them appear to be people’s personal email addresses, like one woman who wants us all to know she has five cats and three dogs. Another is a Hotmail address prefixed by Plan4uMoney. Um. no.

There are GMail, MSN, Hotmail, Yahoo, AOL, Qwest, and Comcast domain email addresses. I’d say easily half or more of the people on the list of dozens have email addresses that are obviously not associated with any insurance business.

What am I supposed to do? Pick one at random and hope I get lucky? No friggin’ way. Not with a decision this important.

To be fair, I have this suspicion that the Feds decided to try to dump their problem back onto New Mexico’s unprepared exchange. In a way, I might be better off than those people who have nothing but Healthcare.gov available…but it’s sad to even think that might be the case.

Well, I give up for now

Anyway, that’s where I’m at. As far as I’m concerned, trying right now to apply for insurance through Healthcare.gov is a waste of time and effort. I have a feeling that for some trying to use improperly prepared state-level exchanges like mine here in New Mexico, it’s also a waste.

Moreover, for something as important as picking the right plan, I really don’t think it’s a good idea for me to try to do so given the confusing and often conflicting information. Worse, I’ve seen news reports in the last couple of days to indicate that the policy information people are seeing on Healthcare.gov isn’t even correct.

So I’m going to let it all wait a few more weeks. If it’s still a mess — and I don’t have much faith it’ll be otherwise — I’m probably going to do what’s suggested and find one of those ‘Health Care Guides’ or simply go to a professional agent or broker. Definitely not one who uses a Yahoo or Hotmail email address though.


Published professional writer and poet, Becca had a three decade career in technical writing and consulting before selling off most of her possessions in 2006 to go live at an ashram in India for 3 years. She loves literature (especially science fiction), technology and science, progressive politics, cool electronic gadgets, and perfecting Hatch green chile recipes. Fortunately for this last, Becca and her wife currently live in New Mexico. @BeccaMorn

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