Indentured for Insurance: I’m a Slave to My Health Care

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“What am I going to do? COBRA costs almost half my rent,” I wept to a friend of mine. “I can’t afford health insurance anymore, but we all know I’m one of those people who has to have it.”

All my friends laugh, but they agree there is no way I can risk being uninsured. I have a tendency to live life at full tilt and with that kind of energy comes a higher propensity for bizarre ailments and injuries.

There was the time I split my chin open in yoga (jumping from chatturanga to crow’s pose–I overshot) three days before a dear friend’s wedding in which I was a bridesmaid (ten stitches—the bride was not pleased with me). Once, a full length mirror fell near me and shattered, with a shard slicing open my leg before a callback for a national commercial (ended up in the ER instead of the callback—15 stitches).

I broke my hand on a guy’s face when I accidentally connected with him during a stage fight (major surgery with a rod inserted in my hand). Then there were the two knee surgeries (a function of years as a professional dancer). Oh, and I actually got swine flu. Seriously.

My hospital record is thick. I actually had a nurse comment once, “Oh, you’ve been here before.” Yes, ma’am. A few times too many.

For years, I never had to worry about coverage. I was very fortunate to work as a professional dancer/singer/actress and I managed to qualify for very decent health insurance through the Actors Equity Association. But about six years ago, everything changed.

The First Time I Lost My Health Insurance

To begin, the health fund through my union started to suffer (read: go bankrupt), so they began upping the number of weeks a performer had to work in order to qualify for insurance benefits. It went from ten weeks per year to 12 weeks to qualify for six months of insurance, and 20-24 weeks to get a year (virtually impossible for most performers unless they are in a long-running Broadway show or national tour).

Though I had been blessed with consistent work, I lost my health insurance for the first time when I found myself undergoing my first major knee surgery five years ago. I needed about three more weeks of work in the yearly period to qualify. But oh, right … I was on crutches!!! No one was going to hire me to perform in a show if I crutched my way in to an audition.

I appealed to the Union, asking them to freeze the weeks I had accrued until I was healthy again, but they pretty much ignored me. I lost all those qualifying weeks, because if you don’t use them within a year, they take them away.

I went on COBRA for the first time. And holy what? It was like $650 per month. How on earth was I supposed to pay for that and a Manhattan apartment? I was in sticker shock.

But I paid, knowing that at any moment something horrible might happen (like the swine flu episode, for example … I was really sick). For part of the year I managed to qualify for a government subsidy for artists, which cut my COBRA payment in half and made it almost doable. But as soon as that was done, I watched the money I had once thought would be a down payment on my own place someday dwindle, owing to the additional expense of health insurance.

Something Had to Give

After I recovered from my first knee surgery, I landed a Broadway show and during that run qualified for another six months of coverage through the Union. I was feeling good … until I reinjured my knee in that show and had to have a second knee surgery. And after another long stint on crutches and rehab, I lost my insurance again.

Back to the COBRA payments, which were insult to injury … literally. This time, they’d gone up to almost $750 per month, with a $500 yearly deductible. I kept paying, and kept watching my savings disappear. As my financial stress levels skyrocketed because I wasn’t in a show anymore and didn’t have coverage as a freelance writer, I began to panic. Something had to give.

I switched to “disaster insurance” through a freelancer’s union type of program. But even that was $300 a month, with a $6,000 deductible. I felt like I couldn’t even go to the doctor.

I called it my “I’ve been hit by a bus while rollerblading in NYC and I don’t want my parents to go broke trying to cover my bills” insurance, because that was the only possible scenario when paying that deductible would be rational. I could no longer see my neurologist (migraines), my orthopedist (knees), my therapist (which I needed because of this insurance stress!), my chiropractor or even my regular gynecologist (I had to go on their “Healthy Woman” plan; they still ended up charging me $60 for lab fees because I didn’t know to ask my doctor to send my lab work somewhere in my health plan’s network).

With a $1,000+ deductible for pharmaceuticals, I had no choice but to recruit one of my best friends from Mexico as my “drug mule.” When she would go home to visit family, I would have her bring me back a couple of Z-pacs in case I got a bronchial infection and some muscle relaxers for my migraine headaches. It was the only way I could afford it in case I got really sick.

My Quest for Other Options

I realized that this disaster insurance/drug mule plan wasn’t healthy, either … so I started looking for other options. I found that one of the gyms in New York City offers insurance if you teach a certain number of classes per week. So, though I hadn’t taught in years, I immediately started teaching again … a lot! But it took me a year to get enough permanent classes to qualify for their employee plan.

Even that insurance (for which I’m insanely grateful; I’ve been on the program for a few months now), still requires I deduct $120 to $240 per month from my paycheck depending on how many classes I teach a week, usually eight to ten. With that much physical activity, I am going to need the insurance because my body is breaking! It’s an HMO, so I have to go to the doctors on their plan. And, of course, none of the doctors I’ve gone to for years seem to be “on” that insurance … sigh.

How Health Insurance Is Stifling My Dreams

I’ve found myself turning down certain performing auditions because, if I got the job and had to stop teaching, I would lose my hard-earned health insurance at the gym. I feel like I am working for health insurance and stifling my dreams on the off-chance I end up with a sprained ankle or some other bizarre virus (or worse).

The only other viable option I’ve seen for getting health insurance is to marry into it. But since my love life has been less than stellar as of late, I guess it’s all up to me … or Obamacare.

Please, Mr. President. Please, Congress. Please, America.

I’m exhausted and broke from my efforts to get and pay for health insurance. I’m a hard worker. I’m not taking advantage of any system. But I don’t work in corporate America. I’m an artist and a writer. And I’m struggling.

We need a national health care plan. It’s time. Unless Mr. Right With the Awesome Medical Plan sweeps into my world (and if he’s on his way, his GPS seems to be seriously messed up), it’s just me … and I need help.

Imagine what I could accomplish creatively if I didn’t have to spend so much time just trying to stay insured?

The world could be my oyster, but right now I’m just trying to make sure I don’t step on one and need more stitches.

Maybe you can relate—and hopefully you haven’t even had as many mishaps as I have. What do you think we should do?

  • koh

    Theoretically I would like to be in the “follow your dreams!” camp, but I think it’s funny that so many people feel victimized because they can’t tap dance for a living.

  • Pro Healthcare

    Thanks for your post. From reading the comments (and watching the healthcare debate over the past few years) it seems like everyone likes to blame the person who is struggling to pay their insurance bills without realizing how easy it is to be in that situation.  I work in “corporate America” and currently have great insurance, but I also have a pre-existing condition (ulcerative colitis), so I know that I can never get laid off, can never go into business for myself, can never be an artist… or I’ll risk losing my coverage.  When I left graduate school and my university coverage stopped, I was uninsurable on the open market and lived in constant fear that my UC would flare up or I would get in an accident.  Having a safety net like ObamaCare is really really important to people like me, and I think a lot of you who say that this writer should “get a real job” and all of that other advice would be surprised how quickly you can wind up in her shoes.  And all of the stories about how awful the system will be post-ObamaCare just aren’t true — it is still a system with the same actors — private insurance companies, private hospitals, etc… just with more of us getting covered.  These are just scare tactics from the anti-Obama crowd.  Remember — this type of system (individual mandate and all) was first proposed and supported by Republicans!

  • Angelfitz

    Can you name one thing the government manages more efficiently and more cost-effective than the private sector?

  • SarahP

    The government already does manage healthcare well through the VA hospital systems. These hospitals are efficient and provide much higher quality care than private hospitals. Our country has the lowest quality care for the amount we pay for it.  We can get better value for our money, and physicians have lobbied for a single payer system for years. Every other civilized country provides universal health insurance. Yes, we will have to pay for it and deal with longer waits. But, at the end of the day, the patient would win, not the insurance and pharmaceutical companies. Tort reforms are also desperately needed.

    ~A physician in training

  • Lynnes56

    How much money would you have spent if you self paid for all your health care?  It is unfortunate that you needed to utilize it so frequently.  But you did.  Bottom line… did you pay more for the insurance than you received in benefits? If so, it was a bad investment.  If you “saved” money accessing your insurance benefit, then you still come out ahead.  Yes, it is expensive, but look at what you received for your insurance.  

  • http://lovehatemishmash.tumblr.com/ Pam

    When I was doing last year’s taxes, I paid $15,000 to doctors and for prescriptions, and that was aside from my Cobra payments ($460/month) and then my private coverage, which was $325 and the Worst. Plan. Ever. I’m someone who needs insurance. I’m not sickly, but I’m not exactly in the best health between my severe allergies, migraine headaches, insomnia etcetcetc. It’s exhausting and upsetting. Could you get into a group plan with your parents? I am able to save (some) money by begging my doctors for samples. With some prescriptions, I ask for double quantity (rx says take two a day when I only take one), then doing the 90-day mail order. I pay about two months’ worth while receiving six months. Shady, yes, but my desperation comes first. It’s a sad state of affairs :(

  • Lmericle

    So how is she supposed to know whether or not it’s a bad investment  BEFORE she makes the investment. 

    Hindsight is the cheapest thing going …

  • Andrea

    I have Ulcerative Colitis also, and am self employed.  No health insurance company will allow me to have an independent plan, and I cannot get on my state’s plan because I have not exhausted my COBRA coverage, which I couldn’t afford.  I got a part time job with Sears.  They have a part time insurance program.  it is not the best, but it fills the need to have heath insurance, because if you have a preexisting condition and  go off health insurance, you can never get back on.  I recently left Sears to focus on my business, the COBRA is much cheaper for this type of insurance, and I hope in 18 months when it runs out, I can get insurance through my fiance’s company.  Regarding medications, I found that if I provided the maker of the drug information regarding my taxes and that the insurance benefit was exhausted for the year, the drug company would send me the necessary medications at no cost.  Most drug companies have a program like this.  The last thing I do, for you other Crohnies and UCers, is follow the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, to reduce my symptoms, need for medication, and visits to the GI doctor.  It’s been a year, and its working so far. 

  • KMB

    For everyone arguing that you do not force others to pay for your care and that you should not pay for the care of others, please consider that emergency care is guaranteed in the US whether or not someone can pay for it. If they can’t, the cost is absorbed by hospitals and taxpayers–i.e., others. As a medical student, I see many people coming into the ER with conditions that should have been treated before, in a time and place that was both better for the patient and better for the economy, because preventative or early treatment is almost always drastically cheaper. With very few exceptions, these patients were not in a position to afford coverage for such routine (cheap!) care, and therefore end up in the ER sick, scared, and in pain. I truly hope that the new coverage extensions are upheld, because I think they’ll decrease both costs and misery.

  • elle.k.

    Assurant Health, which someone listed below as an option, is not available in NYS.  I have found that to be a problem with many affordable insurance companies.  What is it with New York?!  I’m not abreast of insurance regulations in NY but I am assuming they make it difficult for businesses to want to offer affordable plans.  I live in MA for a short stint, and everyone is required to have health insurance.  If you need the state coverage, it is very affordable and based on income.  I pay my COBRA monthly and it’s around $500 without dental.  I am a sole proprietor now, so it’s painful to write that check every month.  But how can you risk not having health insurance these days?!  I lived without insurance for many years without concern.  I’m in my thirties now, and have a very different perspective.  Sadly, most of my friends, especially those who are sole proprietors, do not have health insurance.  It’s an epidemic.  What frustrates me, is those of use working hard can’t afford, or struggle to afford health insurance–but I see plenty of young, seemingly healthy folks sitting on their butts collecting benefits and being fully covered by medicaid.  The system has to change some where.

    • DinaFelice

       NY doesn’t make it difficult, it makes affordable insurance illegal.

      For example, if your insurance doesn’t cover infertility treatment, it is illegal. Even if you are choosing to remain child-free or planning to adopt. Even if you are a young dancer who right now is more concerned with affordable knee surgery than having children.

      That is one example, but there are countless others. And I know the author thinks Obamacare is the solution to her problems, but I guarantee that for someone like her, things will only get worse…if she’s not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid, under Obamacare, if she can’t afford the kind of insurance the law requires (which is more stringent than what she has now and thus will be MORE expensive), she will be fined.

  • Cookie

    Kimberly, you have my sincere sympathy.  Healthcare in this country is a nightmare and needs to change.  There are too many people like you in situations that make it impossible to get coverage.  Another insane example is that the firefighters out west, putting their lives on the line battling those terrifying wildfires, are regarded as “seasonal” or “temporary” workers and, you guessed it, they don’t get healthcare coverage. Delivering healthcare through our employers is nuts and one of the roots of the problem. During WW II companies added it as a benefit to lure workers because unemployment was virtually nonexistent.  Companies today don’t like the system either (except for the tax benefits it brings) because it adds to the cost of everything they make or provide and in a global marketplace it dooms us.  We have some great models short of the bugaboo of socialized medicine.  The government does just fine providing care through the VA system and as (finally) a Medicare recipient, I can attest that it’s pretty good, too.  So many of the naysayers in this post seem to think the USA is best in the world at everything.  Well, sorry.  That just isn’t true for healthcare.

  • Rkbenyola

    I am so sorry to hear what you are going through. It is awful. I am in a similar boat without any insurance just trying to stay healthy and be careful what I do as to not end up in the hospital.  Have you considered temporarily moving to NJ right over the bridge so your rent would be cheaper and you would under NJ insurance law, which I have found to be more forgiving? Just a suggestion. I wish you the best, you are in my prayers.

  • Wistful

         I too am a lifelong dancer with grumpy knees and a list of medical specialists I need to see more frequently than I can afford.  I work full time for a law firm in addition to a full schedule of class, rehearsal, and performances.  This job is soul crushing, stressful, and I have strong suspicions that something very unethical is going on in accounts, but, like others who have commented, I am desperate to keep the health insurance it provides.  I would love to quit but I can’t afford both the COBRA payments and the medical bills I would incur were I to leave.  Frankly, I am hoping to be let go so I can collect unemployment while I apply to grad school (and other jobs). I would think a great deal of money could be saved in avoiding the costs of medical ailments brought on by the stress of worrying about health insurance! 
         Having lived in Europe for a time I feel I am completely ruined for the U.S. health care system and have very little patience with it’s convoluted bureaucracy and focus on pharmaceutical profits rather than patient care.  It astounds me that people argue against a similar restructuring of our system when it is so clear that it would be more efficient and less expensive that our current set-up.  Good luck to you and to all the others who posted about their insurance woes.

  • Dee

    Wait until you get older.  Obamacare isn’t going to be the solution.  Perhaps something like Britain’s NHS is going to be the way the US will have to go.  I don’t like that, but over the past 50+ years, since Medicare opened the door to govt in medicine, we’re screwd.

  • Riff Jones

    id like to know what mr mitt romney is going to do other than dismantle, on day one of his presidency the very healthcare law modeled after his plan in massachusetts, Im sick.  I cant afford coverage,  i qualify for no additional monies to help.  Sheer unbridled hypocrisy.  Making profit from the misfortunes of others is a sin.  Not enough money for healthcare but certainly enough for warfare . It’s evil..

  • huh

    I can relate. I forced myself to work until I was 65.I am a widow. fortunately my husbands SS was significantly larger than mine so I collected on his record. I did not collect when I turned 60 as I knew I would need the larger amount.The last year of my employment I had a serious medical condition,unruptured brain aneurysm. I planned my surgery to overlap my retirement date.Risky but I could not afford even a few months of COBRA. Stress is dangerous to people with aneurysms but I had to find a way to stay in my zone and still function at work without having a stroke. The choices I made. If I could have bought into Medicare I would have been able to have surgery 6 months earlier. I know I am fortunate. A lot of people who play the calender game do not win. This is the present state of health coverage in America. A true national plan would have coverage move from general coverage, critical care coverage, Medicare. Medicaid would go away. The poor have trouble finding doctors who accept the plan. Preventative treatment and immediate access to treatment would save money. It is cheaper to treat a heart condition than having the patient show up in cardiac distress requiring surgical intervention when access to a doctor who could provide a treatment plan and medication. People worry about death panels. We have death panels. It is treatment based on insurance plan.No plan, die.

  • huh

    Coverage gaps exist. employers have cut hours and number of full time employers to circumvent the coverage requirements. Didn’t the writers of  this plan see the loophole. It took employers 5 minutes to  find a way out.Now the working poor is even poorer with no coverage. Good job. Man up and institute a real national health plan that provides coverage for all Americans. Take on the insurance companies. You cannot protect their profits and the American people.

  • Guest

    I can totally relate.  Self-employed attorney, broke my leg without insurance….  husband couldn’t do his job because he had to drive me everywhere and ended up closing my business !  Now that I went to work for someone else, I still can’t get help with the residual issues from the broken leg because I am under the pre-existing condition waiting period!!!   Can’t win.

  • justanopinion

    If you think things are tough now, wait until the dollar tanks. You ain’t seen nothing yet. The high cost of insurance and the unavailability to obtain it are nothing but signs of what is coming. Each year it just gets worse. If you don’t have a Govt job in the Fed or State or Local level you are just going to be vulnerable to this no matter where you work. How many young people are dependent on their parents social security money and other benefits? The Govt. cannot fix it…impossible….although it’s nice to think they can save us. Im stunned that after reading all these comments, no one seems to know this. The whole system is dysfunctional, not just the health care. It’s just another item to divide the working people.