My Obamacare report card: After 1 week, an 'F'

An unexpectedly huge demand, technical glitches, the complex subject matter -- there were lots of reasons why the Affordable Health Care Act's launch was rocky.

By MSN Money Partner Oct 9, 2013 12:07PM

This post comes from John F. Wasik from partner site The Fiscal Times.

 

The Fiscal Times on MSN MoneyMy family’s rocky journey through the health care system over the last five years has included more than a half-dozen emergency room visits (I've lost exact count); five stays in three different acute-care hospitals; one pediatric intensive care episode and countless treatments and tests in clinics and hospital diagnostics units.

 

So shopping for an affordable health plan on the new Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplace, HealthCare.gov, wasn't an academic or journalistic exercise for me. Since we haven't been covered by a group policy in a dozen years, I really wanted to find affordable coverage that made sense for us.

 

In the first week of the new marketplace, at least, it wasn’t an easy task.

 

We were nearly ideal customers for the exchange. I have been buying individual policies since 2001, when I was last on salary with an employer that offered a group plan (I've been working on contract as a freelancer for more than a decade). Since we signed up for a catastrophic plan to save money, there were significant drawbacks: No coverage for immunizations, dental, eye care, check-ups/doctor visits, prescription drugs or lab tests. 

With two young children and a $6,000 annual deductible, we were spending from $12,000 to $15,000 annually on out-of-pocket expenses. That includes $7,200 on premiums with the latest rate hike, which came in like clockwork the middle of this year.

 

That's not to say that the catastrophic plan didn't provide coverage for major medical expenses. When my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy in 2009, it covered all but the deductible and prescription drugs. The hundreds of thousands in bills would've bankrupted us without insurance.

 

Medical doctor © Digital Vision, Getty ImagesPrior to the Affordable Care Act, we would've been hostage to our present insurer since my wife's illness made her "uninsurable" under the old underwriting standards. Now pre-existing conditions can't bar you from coverage. As such, that's one of the best consumer protection provisions in a generation.

 

Still, the out-of-pocket costs with a growing family can be vexing with a catastrophic plan, so knowing that even the most basic policies had "essential benefits" such as prescription drugs, lab services and oral care had a nice ring to it. The catch, though, would be the cost of the premium.

 

We're also good candidates for a more comprehensive policy since, as I mentioned, we've utilized quite a bit of health care in the past five years. Although everything in a hospital was covered – once we met our deductible – periodic expenses like tests ordered from doctor's offices, drugs, dental and eye care are not. Just getting out-of-pocket expenses down to under a thousand dollars a year would be progress.

 

Vetting a plan was slow going
On the morning of Oct. 1, when I clicked on to see some policies from my state, the message was that the system was down. It had crashed due to overwhelming demand. The government projected up to 60,000 simultaneous users, but got swamped by more than four times that volume.

 

According to USA Today, HealthCare.gov's designers based their server needs on Medicare.gov volume, which ran up to 30,000 users a day. Somebody had badly estimated the ACA volume and perhaps the mass motivation of the users.

 

I waited a few days and tried again on Sunday night -- no dice. Monday night was slightly better since the government upgraded its software and added server capacity over the weekend, although I was stymied by an "identity verification" glitch. That particular niche service was outsourced to the credit reporting firm Experian, but when I called them they were closed. At this point, HealthCare.gov was hitting an annoyance level akin to my myriad technical problems with my telecom provider.

 

It's easy to understand why the system was bogged down, though.

 

On the first day, the new site got more than 3 million visitors, which is enough to reach viral status for most YouTube videos. By the end of the week, I was among the 8 million people trying to get onto the site. Clearly, millions wanted information and wanted to apply for a policy. I had plenty of company.

 

An experiment in market economics

I had another reason for obtaining a policy through the exchange other than trying to save money: I wanted to see if this experiment in hybrid market economics that combined private insurers with a public exchange would work.

 

What many don't know about the ACA is that private insurance companies will still set premiums based on local medical costs, utilization, whether you smoke (costs are higher) and your age. But they can't "underwrite" based on pre-existing conditions.

 

For example, utilization of health care in Illinois is much higher in the Northeastern part of the state, that is, the Chicago metropolitan area (as it is in most urban areas), compared with downstate or by the Mississippi River. In fact, the highest prices were in the "collar" counties of Lake, McHenry, Kane and DuPage (I live in Lake County), which wasn't good news for me.

 

According to an analysis by The Associated Press, the lowest-cost "silver" plan, a benchmark for affordable premiums, was a bargain $268 per month for a 50-year-old in Mercer County (population: 16,000), in the northwestern part of the state along the Mississippi. The same person in Kane County (just west of Chicago) would pay $300 more a year. Of course, pricing insurance based on prevailing local medical costs is hardly new and doesn't break any new ground in insurance coverage.

 

I'm also leery about whether insurers will resort to offering low-ball "teaser" prices to get your business for a year, then ratchet up premiums after you've been insured for a while. In my experience, that's been a perennial bug-a-boo; I've never seen premiums adjusted downward.

 

Another concern is what kinds of arrangements the insurers have negotiated with local networks of hospitals. Will my doctor and local hospitals be part of the plan we ultimately choose? Would we be willing to switch providers if they weren't?

 

We've faced that dilemma before when our family doctor was bumped from a network after an employer changed insurers. When that last happened – in the middle of the pregnancy of our second daughter – we chose to pay out of pocket and negotiate a fee ourselves with our doctor rather than change physicians.

 

In any case, the success or failure of the ACA exchanges will largely hinge on choice, service and price, the golden pillars of our consumer society. If they are lacking in a significant way across the country, the ACA will not garner enough political support to survive.

 

So far, I can't make a personal evaluation on either choice or price, but service is definitely getting a failing grade. While the ACA marketplace isn't worth a government shutdown, I would like to see it up and running properly so that I can give it a fair shot.

 

More from The Fiscal Times:

VIDEO ON MSN MONEY

671Comments
Oct 9, 2013 1:39PM
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I have a solution to many of our country's woes:

1.  Constitutional amendment that requires each member of congress to read, understand and attest to reading and understanding a bill in it's entirety before voting on it.

2.  Constitutional amendment that eliminates the possibility that members of congress can vote themselves exemptions from the laws they pass.

Oct 9, 2013 12:45PM
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Why do people keep listening to this. It was DOOMED from the beginning they didn't even read it and forced it on us. This is a an absolute mess with no way of ever being run correctly.
Oct 9, 2013 12:27PM
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No one could possibly still believe the reported website traffic anymore...the numbers are being vastly inflated by HHS to justify the failures of the system.  If you don't believe me, look at the number of actual policies written through OFFLINE brokers.  The numbers are a lot lower than one would expect if the websites were generating the traffic that is being claimed.  Simply put, the ACA took a bad insurance system and broke it.  Doctors and hospitals will not accept the lower-priced Bronze & Silver plans - the amount of risk is too great (these plans cover only 60% & 70% of costs respectively).  And people cannot afford the Gold and Platinum plan premiums.  Once again, an over-inflated bill over-stepped and made the situation far worse than before.  And to those of you who are now part-time employees, please call your Democratic reps and senators and thank them for "eliminating" your full-time positions.   
Oct 9, 2013 12:47PM
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And this coming from ultra-liberal MSN...when Obama's own toadies start criticising his policy it's obvious his policy is a clusterf***.

 

 

Oct 9, 2013 1:37PM
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Oh one last thing:

 

How proud are you for voting again for Obama now ?

And my Cali friends; How proud are you for voting for Pelosi again ?

And my Nevada friends: How proud are you for voting for Reid again ?

Oct 9, 2013 12:34PM
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Obama would mess up a free lunch.  Then again, to be fair, Obama has only had a few YEARS to accomplish something the private sector would have had up and running in 2 days.
Oct 9, 2013 1:03PM
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Government cannot even set up the web site and they want to run healthcare for the nation. LOL

 

When MSN is doing an article on how the healthcare site is screwed up...you gotta know it is a wreck.

Oct 9, 2013 1:25PM
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I find great irony that the NSA can hear a mouse fart in a basement, yet another part of the same Government can't successfully launch a website.
Oct 9, 2013 12:58PM
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Anyone that thought Obamacare wasn't going to be a disaster was fooling themselves, or uneducated, or both.  Why, just days before the launch of Obamacare health exchanges, was there still no information on the actual premium costs and information on what you were getting for those costs?
Oct 9, 2013 12:36PM
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Anything a liberal designed is bound to fail.
Oct 9, 2013 1:40PM
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If it's not Good for the man it's named after. Then it's not for me. You must eat what you are selling
Oct 9, 2013 1:04PM
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"Let me be crystal clear..if you want to keep your plan, you can keep your plan..Period...If you want to keep you Doctor, you can keep your Doctor...Period".

 

Oct 9, 2013 1:30PM
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Would it be so terrible to roll back the individual mandate a year? What would be wrong with a 'soft opening' ? This is what most business' do, whether it's a mortar & brick permanent place or a on-line service, it gives the business a chance to address the glitches before major problems develop. People could still shop the plans & enroll if they find one they like without being denied coverage.

 

But of course, hardly anyone in the present administration has any business experience- So...........

Oct 9, 2013 1:14PM
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Hope the liberals pull their heads out of the sand to read this article.
Oct 9, 2013 1:18PM
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Forced Fed insurance = extortion . once the the obamations find out they are being forced fed something  that supports  death Panels & gov mint getting into your bank account  taking your (premium) extortion, for something your not going to be covered for, it will  only amount  to extortion of  a nation, and  the  ones posting  that I must be daft here , I suggest you read  the 2557 pages that tell you exactly what  the Affordable acts  are going to do... are you ready for  that "change" he said  that's coming? its coming alright, he just didn't say it was going to be all bad change
Oct 9, 2013 12:52PM
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IMHO, delay the requirement for one year, but allow anyone that wants to sign up, do so. Problem solved. It would also allow agreement on the shutdown issue.
Oct 9, 2013 1:28PM
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No, REALLY?!?  I thought this would be the first government program that ran well, was customer centered and within budget - NOT!!!

It is said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome.  Well, voters, we are insane.  We continue to ask for largesse from the treasury and then are surprised when it doesn't go well.   Have we learned nothing from the Postal Service, IRS, etc. etc.?!?

Whoda thunk it wouldn't go well...

Oct 9, 2013 1:28PM
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I'm sure the people hammering on that website are the ones that will basically get their insurance for nothing.

Oct 9, 2013 1:32PM
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Maybe you boys should talk to GOOGLE.  

 The amount of information that flows through them is staggering. And their capabilities are 2nd to none
Oct 9, 2013 3:20PM
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Yesterday obama was on TV and lied to the nation. He said just because we want to raise the debt limit does not mean we are going deeper in debt. Only a complete fool would believe this BS.
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