Man vs. website


Last week, I spent six hours shopping for Obamacare on New York state’s health care marketplace website. Officials had estimated that it would take the average person seven minutes.

Either because I am not an average person or because the Obamacare people are idiots, I spent six hours setting up an account. You can’t log in without an account.

There were many questions. The site ran painfully slowly. But I slogged through.

Until I ran into a wall. This happened when the system tried to “verify my identity” by asking me to answer a set of multiple-choice questions generated by the DMV (which model car, if any, had I recently purchased?) and some credit reporting agency (which type of loan, if any, was mine?). The page froze. Apple’s little blue circle spun and spun. I wound up with a cryptic error message written by some Indian coder.

So I gave up. But then, over the weekend, President Barack Obama spoke soothing words.

“What’s happened is the website got overwhelmed by the volume,” Obama said, calmly. And he’s right. That must be what happened. Apparently this explanation was supposed to make it OK. As opposed to prompting another reaction like, say: Jimmy Carter sent a probe that’s still sending back the sound of interstellar plasma from beyond Pluto, but you can’t rent enough server space to handle Internet traffic? Why? Is NSA using it all?

“Folks,” the president continued, “are working around the clock and have been systematically reducing the wait times, but we are confident that over the course of the six months — because it’s important to remember people have six months to sign up — that we are going to probably exceed what anybody expected in terms of the amount of interest that people have.”

Well, if folks are working on it — good, decent, common salt-of-the-earth types, farmer-type hillbilly folks, but with mad coding skills, presumably — then clearly all would be well.

And so it was!

Since I am uninsured, I spent the weekend avoiding injuries and infections. When I went back to the site on Monday, I was able to log on. Somehow, despite the error message, my account worked. Yay!

Take that, John Boehner! Government can do stuff.

First step: You enter the names, Social Security numbers and birthdates of all members of your family, describe how they’re related, and answer several arcane questions (are you Native American? Hispanic/Latino? Are you a native-born American or were you naturalized? Have you been here since 1996?). It’s time-consuming but straightforward if you’re used to filling out forms.

If you’re like me, and you have a suffix (Sr., Jr., III, IV, V) in your name, the website does not know what to do. It kind of explodes. Until it works. Even though you did the same thing over and over.

But then … it came! The nefarious Return of the Error Messages.

What do you mean, you can’t confirm my SSN? I know my SSN. I’ve had it since the Ford administration. I know how to enter it, too. And why are you saying the same thing three times?

I kept re-entering the same SSN. Same result each time. But then, suddenly, there was hope:

I have a right to appeal! So I called the number. Which didn’t answer.

How could Obama’s folks let me down? Folks don’t do that. Folks do folky things.

Folks suck.

What to do? Well, I’m male. So I did what guys do when faced with any insurmountable obstacle: I smashed into it, head first, over and over and over in the hope that something, somehow, for no reason, would change.

I re-entered all my info. Got the same error about my SSN. Again. Repeat. Rinse. Something.

Finally, something changed.

“Congratulations! You are eligible to enroll in a qualified plan through the Marketplace.” Indeed, I felt like I’d just won a MacArthur fellowship. Which I deserve, because only a genius could have made it this far into such a balky website.

It was time to Find a Plan.

What did I need to know? A list of my doctors and of nearby hospitals and health care facilities. No problem.

Next, you get a Yelp-like interface you can use to narrow down the various plans to suit your specifications. Among the criteria: Metal Level. Which surprised me, since I didn’t know my knowledge of 1980s hair bands would come in handy.

For those about to rock, we insure you!

A list of plans scrolled down: 54 of them.

Talk about sticker shock.

NOT affordable. Not, as Obama said, lower than your cellphone bill.

For this 50-year-old nonsmoker, New York health care plans range from Fidelis Care’s “Bronze” plan at $810.84 per month to $2,554.71 per month. I didn’t bother to look up the $2,554.71 one, because if I had $2,554.71 a month lying around, I’d buy a doctor.

But $810.84 per month. $10,000 a year. After taxes. Where I live, you have to earn $15,000 to keep $10,000.

Not affordable. Did I mention that?

The plans offered by New York do not allow you to go “out of network” for health care. In other words, you have to use a doctor in each private insurer’s list, or they don’t pay a cent of reimbursement.

Even worse, the plan “deductibles” — the amount you pay out of pocket each year before the insurer has to cover you for anything at all — are outrageously high. Fidelis Care Bronze has a $3,000 a year deductible per person. I’m in pretty good health; it’s a rare year I spend that much on doctors. This is what used to be known as a catastrophic plan: OK if you get hit by a bus, but useless for most people living typical lives.

After the $3,000 a year deductible, Fidelis would pay 50 percent of your bills. So if you rack up $5,000 a year in medical bills, you pay $4000 and they pay $1,000. Crappy.

But — and here’s the Catch-22 — there’s no way to find out whether your doctor, or your local hospital, or clinic is on a plan list because the site’s primitive search function is “disabled” “due to overwhelming response.”

That was that. Obamacare is a bust, at least in New York.

Even if I was a millionaire, there’s no way I’m buying anything blind. You don’t buy health care unless you know whether your doctor or local hospital is covered.

As far as I can tell, this is going to be OK for people with terrible diseases and pre-existing conditions, and totally useless for everybody else.

But what about the famous “subsidies”? If you earn less than four times the federal poverty rate, you’re supposedly eligible for a tax credit that mitigates the outrageous cost of paying crazy high CEO salaries (average $11 million, the highest of any industry in the U.S.) for for-profit insurers.

Applying for financial aid through the site was an ordeal. As a self-employed person, the worst part was having to re-create three months of detailed financial statements from pay stubs. The truth is, I have no idea how much I’ll earn next year. But they don’t care.

This system is so not working for me.

It took me a few hours to enter my financial data. But then, finally, thank God, I was done. I pushed “enter.” And got another error message.

Ted Rall is a syndicated cartoonist and columnist. His website is tedrall.com.

 

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