ProPublica: Journalists Turn To Themselves For Obamacare Stories

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This article, written by Charles Ornstein, was originally published by ProPublica on January 22.

After months of hype and hysteria, insurance policies purchased under the Affordable Care Act went into effect on New Year’s Day, and journalists have largely pivoted from writing about the problems of HealthCare.gov to how the law is actually working for consumers.

Some journalists don’t have to look very far. That’s because they are the story, too.

Back in December, I wrote about Missouri public radio reporter Harum Helmy, who earned too much for her state’s Medicaid program and too little to qualify for a subsidy that would have offset the cost of an insurance policy on Healthcare.gov.

“I know — an uninsured health reporter,” she wrote to me. “The joke’s not lost on me.”

Since then, reporters across the country have been telling their stories—and they seem to square with the broader experiences of the public.

Take Steve Friess, a freelance journalist and former reporter at Politico. In a first-person story for the Daily Caller last week, Friess wrote about how his partner, Miles Smith, had signed up for a plan, only to try to cancel it days after it took effect because it turned out to have unexpected costs.

After the initial elation at finding a reasonably priced plan, Friess wrote, Smith found out it wasn’t so great after all.

Three days into 2014, Miles took his Obamacare out for its maiden drive. His stop at the doctor went fine. At the pharmacy, it crashed.

His medication — which has cost us a co-pay of between $10 and $30 under every other plan he’s had since 2004 including one under Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan — would not be covered. At all.

That’s $438 out of pocket. Every month. And it won’t even go against the plan deductible.

In other words, this nifty $246 Obamacare plan would actually cost $686 a month.

Friess said he ate up an entire work week making a series of lengthy phone calls to try to figure out why the medication wasn’t covered. It was an exercise in frustration.

That’s not how it was supposed to be. After dozens of hours of phone calls that displaced my usual work obligations this week, only one thing is clear: Nobody can give anybody a straight or consistent answer to anything.

Our troubles may strike some as trivial and particular, although they wouldn’t if it happened to them. And anyone who wants a successful system – as we do – must understand that these nightmares are happening across the nation to the very people who want Obamacare to work.

Other reporters also felt similar frustration, but their stories had somewhat different endings. Jon Brooks, a former reporter at KQED radio in San Francisco, wrote a piece about the incorrect information he was given, delays, and, ultimately, success.

But if all goes smoothly from here on out, it is quite true that I, personally, am going to be one of the winners in the Obamacare game, receiving guaranteed insurance at a big cost savings. And by big, I mean about 60 percent, or thousands of dollars per year.

Not everyone is experiencing that, of course: Cancellations of individual policies that seemed to put the lie to the president’s now notorious “If you like your insurance, you can keep it,” message have been well-reported, as has the sticker shock when some of those cancelled customers shopped for a replacement policy on an exchange.

For me, though, I’d have to say the entire process was a little like my recent mortgage refinancing: frustrating and riddled with potential pitfalls at every step, but with a big financial benefit as the end result.

Finally, last month, freelance science writer Anna Azvolinsky shared her concerns on Twitter in response to a tweet about enrollment in the New York State of Health exchange:

@DanGoldbergCNY @charlesornstein Still waiting for confirmation of my ‘sign up’. Have not heard from Empire to pay. Getting kinda nervous

— Anna Azvolinsky (@annaazvolinsky) December 30, 2013

@charlesornstein @DanGoldbergCNY 90 min 49 sec on hold..Empire only started sending bills to those who signed up for #aca on Dec. 23rd

— Anna Azvolinsky (@annaazvolinsky) December 30, 2013

I checked in with Azvolinsky this week via email to ask her how it was going. She said she and her husband had been on hold with Blue Cross for a total of 22 hours trying to pay their premiums and ensure they were enrolled. On Jan. 10, they received insurance cards in the mail, but they were for their previous plan and were of no use. She added:

We were finally able to receive our [new plan] ID number on the 10th of Jan. I needed a prescription filled on the 13th so spent more than an hour on hold several times that day to receive the Rx numbers on Monday Jan. 13th, again being volleyed from rep to rep. We would be forwarded to reps in other states that had only information about specific geography customers but not to our information (in NY and other states in this area I assume).

She told me that she still doesn’t have her ID card and has found that none of her doctors take her new plan. She expects to write more about her experience in the future.

Sometimes journalists become better reporters when they not only cover a story but live it, too. I can’t help but wonder if that’s what’s happening here.

ProPublica

is an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. The organization’s work focuses exclusively on truly important stories, stories with “moral force.” ProPublica seeks to produce journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them. ProPublica is headquartered in Manhattan. Its establishment was announced in October 2007. Operations commenced in January 2008, and publishing began in June 2008. http://www.propublica.org/