PUBLISHERS NOTEBOOK: Health insurance in place, despite MNsure's 'steel door'
Tuesday, December 17, 2013 7:26 AM
Jennifer Slafter of rural Mabel has learned more than she really wanted to know about the new insurance exchange, but at least her family is covered - for now. She has also learned a lot about politics, bureaucracy and the media since she wrote an opinion piece for this newspaper more than a month ago.
"It's been quite a saga," she reported Monday after being contacted for an update.
It started in early November when she weighed in on her experiences with MNsure, a subject that had been discussed on our opinion page previous to her piece. The opinion piece she submitted to this newspaper was a very detailed account about the negative impact the new insurance exchange would have on each member of her family. It was also a very honest account. She noted that she has been a lifelong Democrat and supported the Affordable Care Act - until she saw firsthand the negative impact it will have on her family, friends and neighbors in southeastern Minnesota.
Her struggles drew the attention of the media - she said she has lost count of all the newspapers her story has appeared in, with the number still growing as the story went out on the Associated Press. Her story has also been part of a CNN web report, included in a KSTP television news segment in the Twin Cities and in other media.
Her story also drew the attention of politicians. Republicans have been using her story against their Democratic opponents and she has heard that Democratic blogs are tearing her to pieces, although she hasn't bothered to look.
As it stands now, her husband will be covered by his employer, the children will be on Medical Assistance and she purchased a plan for herself through an insurance agent. Her agent is a MNsure assister, but due to glitches in the system, she got her coverage off the exchange.
The details of how this came to be could fill a book. Including her husband's employer, her insurance agent, county officials, Minnesota Department of Health officials and federal officials, the process was more than most people would want to undergo.
"There are so many nuances to this law that no one seems to understand, and the websites are certainly not able to sort it all out," she said.
She feels that a major problem going forward is the question of employer-provided insurance.
I had written about my experiences with MNsure prior to Slafter's opinion piece and it was a fairly rosy picture as I had little trouble getting on the site and found the rates to be fairly comparable to what my business is offering now. I cautioned, however, that my experience was unique to me and probably didn't fit the profile of 99 percent of the other people in our area since I am a small employer that offers health insurance.
I found out last week that my column was reprinted in a Minnesota insurance trade magazine. I felt a bit embarrassed because I had written another column since then questioning the exchange and have had enough input now to realize that it is the "mess" that Slafter describes.
One reason employers haven't experienced the canceled policies and other issues is because they were given a one-year reprieve. Some industry analysts predict that we will be going through the trauma next year about this time.
In theory the Affordable Care Act has some good points - preventing insurance companies from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions and bringing uninsured on plans instead of society paying for them in a roundabout way when they default on health care payments.
In practicality, the program is a disaster, even to those who agree with the philosophy that was behind the push for a change.
Slafter's criticism is that it didn't make insurance more affordable; the changes actually made rates and deductibles skyrocket. What makes the insurance affordable is the expansion of Medicaid and tax credits, which are almost impossible to get due to all the glitches. She would have much preferred to make it on her own, but has no choice now.
She is also critical of the disparities in rates. If her family lived in the Twin Cities, it could have afforded a private family policy, but the family has no choice in southeastern Minnesota. Apparently, those disparities existed before, but wasn't one purpose of the ACA to provide larger pools so insurance rates would level?
Her life has become an open book. "Being as brutally honest as I was means that our whole life is out there for everyone to see - especially the kids being on MA," she said.
However, that has also meant help from politicians, although that came about due to her exposure in the media. She noted that Democrats jumped aboard because it was in their best interest to do so once her story gained a lot of attention.
Having the help of the offices of both U.S. senators in Minnesota was a benefit to her plight. The thing is, it shouldn't take a fleet of senators' aides to get one family's insurance in place, said Slafter.
Through her trials, she has lost a lot of faith in our country and its leaders. And though she wasn't pleased with all the media coverage, she did appreciate the fact that the media is powerful in keeping government honest as "sometimes the people in charge need a good swift kick in the pants from the media before they'll admit wrong-doing or try to fix things."
One question is what is going to happen once the media limelight fades?
"I dread the coming years and the battle we're going to have to wage each year," she said.
If it were just Slafter having this problem, I would call it an anecdote that can't be translated to a universal truth. Too often inconsequential exchanges end up being used as propaganda to push a political agenda.
I've heard enough other anecdotes to confirm a widespread problem with the new insurance exchange in Minnesota and nationally. Amazon would be a bankrupt company if its website were so difficult to navigate and confusing.
"The glitches in the MNsure system are extremely irritating - instead of being a gateway to affordable insurance, it's a steel door that's been locked and barred," summarized Slafter.