The disappointment, like so many others, began with a promise. “If you like the plan you have,” President Barack Obama told the nation on June 6, 2009 at the nadir of the economic downturn, “You can keep it. If you like the doctor you have, you can keep your doctor, too. The only changes you’ll see are falling costs as our reforms take hold.”
It was a promise that provided relief to Americans, many of whom feared the side effects of Obama’s new Affordable Care Act, and were, at best, cautious about its adoption. It assured them that things would continue as usual, that while things around them changed, they could stay the same.
The only problem was, the promise was a lie.
I’m 29. I voted for Obama, twice. I believe that national health care is important, and I would have strongly supported a single-payer system in the mold of Canada or the United Kingdom. This is to say, I am not part of the crowd that believes the Affordable Care Act was evil, or that adopting a single-payer system would inevitably turn us into godless communists. But as the March 31 deadline for signing up for Obamacare approaches, I am, however, deeply disappointed with the gap between what was promised and what’s being delivered.
I’ve always been among the more responsible of my peers when it came to having health insurance. While many of my friends went uninsured through their early- and mid-20s, I always kept at least a catastrophic plan. When I moved to California, I purchased a plan from Aetna. It wasn’t the world’s greatest plan — there was a significant deductible, but it had the doctors I wanted in its network, and it wasn’t expensive.
When the Affordable Care Act’s first wave of requirements came into effect, I watched as my formerly inexpensive plan more than doubled in price. This was, I reasoned, a fair trade for obtaining godsends such as the banning of lifetime benefit caps, the elimination of pre-existing conditions as reasons for denying coverage, and mandating coverage for maternity care for women. If I was suddenly paying more than $250 per month for a plan that had once been $120, I reasoned that progress has a price.
But in the spring of 2013, Aetna sent me a letter announcing that they would be canceling my plan, as they no longer wanted to sell insurance in California. How could this be? Obama had promised that if you liked your plan, you wouldn’t lose it. I liked my plan, and I lost it.
I decided to give the state’s Web-based exchange, Covered California, a shot, figuring that maybe I’d at least save some money. But the site was a counterintuitive den of poor Web design and confusing language. Everything from the half-dozen required security questions to the bizarre way you had to report your income was cumbersome — and that was when the site was actually working, which it often wasn’t. Like many young people, my income varies from month to month as I don’t have a yearly salary; but Covered California didn’t provide me with an option to report my total yearly income, only my monthly income, making it nearly impossible to report what I earned.
Once I’d signed up for a plan, my work wasn’t done. I’d signed up well in advance of the deadline, but my card didn’t arrive on time. I tried calling, but I was greeted by a message saying call volumes were so heavy that they weren’t taking calls that day. Even though Covered California anticipated more than 1 million people signing up for new plans, it only hired 500 workers for its call centers, according to the Los Angeles Times, meaning one worker for every 2,000-plus customers.
My experience is hardly the worst I’ve heard about. I finally received a card in the third week of January, but my brother went uninsured until March 22, despite having signed up on time. He played by the rules, followed the government’s instructions, and yet still had to pay for medical care and antibiotics out of pocket during the first months of the year. And friends told me similar stories of impossibly long wait times on the phone, the loss of primary care physicians, cards that arrived late or not at all and, most galling, the loss of access to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, which can only be accessed through Covered California via one “bronze-level” plan with an extremely high deductible.
I do not, like my cousin George Will, believe that the Affordable Care Act is a disaster, nor do I wish for its repeal. But I do believe I was lied to by the president and his spokespeople, who claimed on no less than 37 different occasions, according to the Tampa Bay Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning politifact.com, that no American would lose access to their plan or to their doctor.
I lost access, my friends have lost access, and we certainly haven’t seen falling costs. Yet I still believe health care reform is worth it. The false promises, however, made even small victories seem like defeats. The ill-timed, ill-planned, and just plain ill rollout of the health exchange system has left many young Californians wondering if aggravation, confusion and delays are all we have to look forward to. The president sold us change we could believe in, but delivered us changes that have left us faithless.
Jonathan Maseng is a frequent arts contributor for the Journal.