Persistence Pays Off For Uninsured Alaskan

Nov 8, 2013
Originally published on November 8, 2013 10:17 am

Despite all the problems with HealthCare.gov, a few dozen Alaskans have managed to enroll in a health plan through the marketplace. Lara Imler is one of them.

Imler, a 37-year-old hair stylist in Anchorage, ditched her office job as an accountant in 2004. She says she loves making people feel better about themselves and is a lot happier cutting hair than she was sitting in front of a computer. But she does miss one big thing about her old job: "I had health insurance, and it was wonderful."

Even without health insurance, Imler spends a lot of time in doctors' offices. She has Hashimoto's disease, a thyroid disorder. The treatments and blood tests she needs are expensive, but not as expensive as buying insurance in Alaska's individual market.

"Being self-employed, getting my premium at anything reasonable wasn't happening," she says. "I think my last quote was $1,200 a month for myself."

Imler was determined to find something better on the new Affordable Care Act marketplace.

She logged onto HealthCare.gov a few days after it went live last month. She tried four times that day and four more times the first week but kept running into messages that the site was unavailable. So she decided to wait a few weeks. On Oct. 24, she logged back in and slowly slogged through the process.

Imler's degree is in computer programming, and she's even built a few websites. She thinks that experience helped her persevere through the trouble spots on HealthCare.gov.

"You get to a point where you finally get to pick what health insurance you want and all the buttons have to be double-clicked. If you don't know that or try that, it doesn't go anywhere. It just sits there," says Imler. "This website is so not user-friendly. You can't figure out what they're trying to get you to do, unless you accidentally get there."

About two hours after she started, she landed on a screen that told her she had successfully enrolled. She was pleasantly surprised by the price. Imler qualified for subsidies and chose a mid-level plan that will cost her $110 a month.

"The website sucks. I'm not going to lie," she says, "But the idea that I might be able to afford health insurance, is huge to me. It will be a huge burden off my family."

The plan is a great deal for Imler, though it may be a different story for her insurance company. The claims from her chronic condition are likely to pile up quickly.

But insurance companies are braced for people like Imler, especially during the first year. Jeff Davis, president of Premera Alaska, says the company is prepared to lose money in 2014, maybe even a lot of money. But in the long run, he thinks Premera can balance the mix with healthy people.

"The first wave will be people who know they need coverage, so that's a little scary," Davis says. "So then, the question and the challenge becomes, how do we help inform others, particularly those who are subsidy eligible, that this is available to them and help them figure out how to get to it."

Imler is still waiting for enrollment confirmation from her new insurance company. She's optimistic that will come soon. If it doesn't, she'll start all over with HealthCare.gov.

This story is part of a partnership among NPR, Alaska Public Radio Network and Kaiser Health News.

Copyright 2013 Alaska Public Radio Network. To see more, visit http://www.aprn.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Problems continue with the healthcare.gov website. In the state of Alaska, two insurers are offering plans on the Obamacare marketplace. As of last week, they reported just 38 Alaskans had managed to enroll for coverage. Anchorage hair stylist Lara Imler is one of the lucky few who successfully worked their way through the website. She's now waiting confirmation of insurance she hopes will start in January. Alaska Public Radio Network's Annie Feidt reports.

ANNIE FEIDT, BYLINE: In a small salon in midtown Anchorage, Lara Imler turns off a blow dryer and hands her client a mirror.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAIR SALON)

LARA IMLER: All right. I'm going to show you the back. It's better now.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Awesome. Yay. I'm so happy.

IMLER: Good. Good. You're all done, my dear.

FEIDT: Imler left her job as an accountant in 2004. She's a lot happier cutting hair than she was sitting in front of a computer. She loves making people feel better about themselves. But she does miss one big thing about her old job.

I had health insurance with a pretty big corporate office for about six years, and it was wonderful.

Now, even without health insurance, Imler spends a lot of time in doctors' offices. The 37-yearold has Hashimoto's disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects the thyroid. The treatments and blood work she needs are expensive, but not as expensive as having insurance.

Being self employed, getting my premium at anything reasonable, wasn't happening. I think my last quote was $1,200 a month for myself.

Imler was determined to find something better on the new Affordable Care Act marketplace. She logged onto healthcare.gov a few days after it went live last month. She tried four times that day and four more times the first week but kept running into error messages. So she decided to wait a few weeks. On October 24th, she logged back in and slowly started making her way through the process.

IMLER: So you get to a point where you finally get to pick what health insurance you want and all the buttons have to be double clicked. If you don't know that or try that it doesn't go anywhere. It just sits there.

FEIDT: So it's not like it says double click here?

IMLER: No, no. This website is so not user friendly, you can't even figure out what they're trying to get you to do, unless you accidentally get there.

FEIDT: Imler has a degree in computer programming. She's even built a few websites. She thinks that experience helped her persevere through the trouble spots on healthcare.gov. About two hours after she started, she landed on a screen that told her she had successfully enrolled. She was pleasantly surprised by the price. Imler qualified for a subsidy, and chose a mid-level plan that will cost her $110 a month.

IMLER: The website sucks, I'm not going to lie, but the idea that I might actually be able to afford health insurance, is huge to me. It will be a huge burden off my family.

FEIDT: The plan is a great deal for Imler, but for her insurance company it's a different story. The claims from her chronic condition are likely to pile up quickly. But insurance companies are ready for people like Imler, especially in the first year. Jeff Davis is president of Premera Alaska. He says the company is prepared to lose money in 2014, maybe even a lot of money. But in the long run, he thinks Premera can balance the mix with healthy people.

JEFF DAVIS: The first wave will be people who know they need coverage, right? So that's a little scary. So then, the question, the challenge becomes, how do we help inform others, particularly those who are subsidy eligible, that this is available to them and help them figure out how to get to it?

FEIDT: Lara Imler is still waiting for enrollment confirmation from her new insurance company. She's optimistic that will come soon. If it doesn't, she'll start all over with healthcare.gov. For NPR News, I'm Annie Feidt in Anchorage.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: And that story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, Alaska Public Radio Network, and Kaiser Health News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.