Transforming Health: shopping on the exchange

Written by Matt Paul, Reporter/Producer | Oct 31, 2013 4:00 AM

Marguerite Plank and "Devlin"

(Harrisburg) -- Nearly a month into its rollout, the woes continue for the website. Many Pennsylvanians are experiencing long delays, broken loops and error messages as they try to navigate the state's federally-administered exchange.

Results are mixed in the midstate.

"There is a lot of time spent looking at that spinning "wait" symbol,” explains Marguerite Plank of Gettysburg, who considers herself lucky to have made it to the end of the process.

But Plank, a self-employed editor, thinks her patience will pay off, as she expects to save about $300 per month compared to the costly insurance plan she has now.

"Through the years, every year the premiums go up a little bit, and up a little bit,” Plank explains while sipping on coffee outside the Ragged Edge, with her dog “Devlin” waiting patiently at her feet. “Now I can't remember which is more expensive, my mortgage or my health insurance, but they're right in there neck-and-neck."


Pam Parson at home in Harrisburg

Another of the so-called lucky ones to make it through website is Pam Parson of Harrisburg. But she admits the site was a bit unwieldy.

“I'll also admit that it was like one in the morning, so not a heavy time when there would be a lot of users," Parson explains.

But Parson’s luck ran out once she submitted her application.

It didn’t take long for an electronic document to arrive, notifying her that she’s not currently eligible for tax credits or subsidies on Pennsylvania’s exchange. The letter informed Parson that she may be eligible for Medicaid, but that Pennsylvania has chosen not to expand coverage at this time. Due to the circumstances, Parson is exempt from the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate. She’s free to shop on the marketplace at the full retail price of insurance, but the cheapest plan she could find still tops $300 per month.

For now, Parson -- who juggles three part-time jobs -- is pressing on without insurance.  She says, "It's almost as if I'm being penalized for not having more. Like you didn't work hard enough, like you don't deserve this."


Jenny Englerth at the Family First offices in York

Family First Health CEO Jenny Englerth says the so-called Medicaid coverage gap is just as – if not more – frustrating than the website problems. An estimated 400,000 Pennsylvanians could be impacted while the Corbett administration and federal government negotiate an alternative plan to draw down expanded Medicaid dollars.

Individuals who do qualify for subsidies, Englerth says, are being stymied by the website.

“To not have that tool be effective in any way has been really frustrating, and we're concerned that it's going to be a factor that affects negative perceptions of the entire Affordable Care Act," she says.

Even the trained navigators and certified application counselors on staff at Family First are working with the same balky website as everyone else.

But Englerth says most people are still choosing to wait out the technical problems, in lieu of paper or telephone applications.


Angela West is determined to find affordable health insurance

So far technical woes have prevented Angela West of Camp Hill from comparing plans side-by-side.

But West, a breast cancer survivor, won't let herself get discouraged.

"I think the end result is more advantageous than just giving up, and saying it's not worth the fight," she says with a wide smile.

West points out that coverage purchased on the exchange starts in January as long as it’s purchased by December 15th.

The Obama administration hopes the technical woes will be sorted out by then.

Testifying on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, herself, called the rollout a debacle.

She promised lawmakers that her department would have the website's problems fixed by November 30th. 


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