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Health Sentinel: Patience needed to shop online for health plan

Process is reminiscent of other crowded shopping venues

Monday, October 7, 2013 - 8:58 am

I've joined the millions of Americans who began online shopping for a health insurance exchange plan. Better stated: I attempted to do so. I waited until midafternoon the first day the Affordable Care Act (ACA) insurance plans were posted, thinking by then early-bird shoppers would have already perused the site.

The system crashed early. By Saturday, I was on Day 5 of trying to get past “Apply Now” to check out my options.

The message I see each time is the same: “We have a lot of visitors on our site right now, and we're working to make your experience here better. Please wait here until we send you to the login page. Thanks for your patience,” were the words that stared back at me for more than six hours.

Hmmm. Wait here? Had I heeded those instructions I would have needed a Porta-Potty, a cot, Waiter-on-the-Way and a host of other services.

Among glitches incurred at the outset: not being able to create an account. When I finally got part way into the account creation process, it said I had to choose three security questions, but would not show the questions when I scrolled down.

I could rant and rave that the crash and glitches should be no surprise because it's operated by the government. But I've had sillier shopping strategies than staring at the same page on my computer for hours on end, such as going to Best Buy at 3 a.m. on the day after Thanksgiving. I was at the Vera Bradley outlet sale one year when the computer system shut down. Shoppers stood in the checkout lines for hours until the computers were up and running again – and that was for a purse! Shopping for something as important as health insurance should elicit at least as much patience as shopping for a purse.

Be patient is the message that health insurance broker Rick Hanauer of Hanauer Associates, 421 E. Cook Road, is sending his clients. He proactively sent emails to most of them before opening day of the insurance marketplace, telling them to be prepared for delays in getting on the website.

“I'm telling people to relax. We've got time,” he said, pointing out individuals have until March 31 to choose a plan if they currently have no health insurance or are looking for a more affordable plan or one with better coverage. Hanauer has attended seminars on the exchanges and has a rough idea of what some plans for those of us in northeast Indiana will cost but nothing concrete until he, too, can get on the www.healthcare.gov site.

Insurance shopper Leanne Coffmann is self-employed and owner of Fort Wayne-based Safety Training Solution, which provides Occupational Safety and Health Administration compliance and other workplace safety training. On opening day of the exchange marketplace, she said, “I was able to create a profile and to get on there and start looking at the options. I was just starting to get to bronze, silver and silver A and then it kicked me out.” So she called the toll-free help line, 1-800-318-2596, and got a live person surprisingly quickly.

Coffman is desperate for health insurance. She's been without for 14 years, after a once-thriving family business, started by her ex-husband's family, went bankrupt. But it wasn't just the business that was ailing. Coffmann, a mother of five, was diagnosed with cancer around the same time. Then later another kind of cancer developed. Fortunately they were diagnosed early and were treatable. She started her own business, which gave her flexibility to raise her children, all of whom are currently in or have completed college.

But like most uninsured people, she said, “I do not go to the doctor unless I'm sick.” Even then, the illness has to be something such as pneumonia.

On Tuesday when Coffmann began talking to the federal marketplace advisor on the phone, she asked the woman, “Are people being patient like me? Are they crying like me?' ” The woman told Coffmann for the most part shoppers were cordial and understanding. She also said many other people had called crying, their own stories of desperation and of hope of finally obtaining health insurance.

Hanauer said the exchanges are likely to help some of his clients, though not all will find cheaper or better coverage if they are already insured. He does have concerns about those who will choose and purchase a plan via the website who may later have disputes over claims.

“Who are they going to turn to?” he said, recommending that shoppers consider signing up for an exchange through an experienced agent. “I'm not allowed to steer (people) but there are certain companies I have a favorable experience with. I understand their contracts, how they work.”

In case you are wondering, I really am in the market for an exchange plan. Yes, it's frustrating to not have the signup process running smoothly. Yes, the ACA is not perfect. But I maintain it is movement in the right direction. I'm old enough to remember when my very conservative self-employed parents had great skepticism about Medicare. It was a difficult decision to opt in. After all, this was a plan promoted by the government. Later they were glad they did.

We can do nothing and keep things as they are: daily adding to the numbers of people without health coverage; prohibiting or canceling coverage for people with cancer or other illnesses; emphasizing treatment of sickness rather than prevention; failing to improve many of our nation's health outcomes, which continue to lag behind other developed countries.

Health care has become the wedge separating our elected representatives to the point Capitol Hill has become a land promoting “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”

The prophet Isaiah spoke these words to the fractioned people of Israel, a people who had lost their way: “Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. Come now, let us reason together,' says the Lord” (Isaiah 1:17, 18).

Still “window-shopping,” Coffmann found a silver, or midcost plan, for $181 a month after qualifying for a $669 income-based subsidy. Out-of-pocket costs for this plan would be $2,250 a year. She is encouraged.

“This is a new world,” she said, “a new future, for the self-employed.”

Jennifer L. Boen is director of the Anna Yoder MS Fund at the IU School of Medicine-Fort Wayne at IPFW. This column is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.