I survived HealthCare.gov – & so can you! It's pretty ironic, actually. About the time editorial cartoonists have lampooned the site & “everyone” has decided that it's a “disaster,” the darn thing starts working! After wrestling with the site since Oct. 1, I successfully enrolled our family on November 16. You know what? It was worth the wait.
For years, our family has been part of that small slice of the population that doesn't have employer-sponsored health insurance. Hubby & I run a small business, but it's just us. Without employees, we aren't eligible to have a group health plan through the business. This means we've paid a lot more for a lot less coverage and scrambled to pay premiums that have risen as much as $100/month every year – even though we have no health problems and have met our deductible only once.
A few weeks ago, we were surprised to get our premium renewal notice from BCBS. Unlike many people (or at least the most vocal of our minority), our premium next year would only increase by $28/month. That sounds like a great deal – until you understand that this increase would push our monthly health insurance premium over $1100/month, an annual amount of $13,368.
Like so many in the same situation, I was eagerly awaiting the launch of the marketplace. And, like so many in the same situation, I was incredibly frustrated with both the performance of the site and with the knowledge and responsiveness of both the online chat people and the phone customer service people.
So I waded into the site on my own, often trading advice with Facebook friends and other bloggers in the same situation. Here's my personal “cheat sheet” (and suggestions from others too!) for navigating the application maze at healthcare.gov.
- Choose your browser carefully: I prefer to use Firefox, but it just does not play well with Healthcare.gov. I had much better luck using Chrome and others had good luck with Internet Explorer. Note: the site also uses some advanced features; you may have to upgrade your browser.
- Clear the browser history, cache, and cookies: If you get hung up on a particular step during the application process, it sometimes helps to log out, clear the browser's cache, history, & cookies and log back in. I don't know why, but it worked for me & others.
- Use a wired connection: I didn't have a problem accessing the site using a wifi connection with my laptop & home network, but others reported problems if the wifi dropped out even momentarily.
Things You Need To Have Ready
- Email address: Have your email account open and ready. When you first go onto healthcare.gov to create an account, the system will send you a confirmation email & you have to respond within 30 minutes. Note: I had a lot of problems at first because my primary personal email account is with yahoo and I never got a confirmation email – even after half a dozen tries. It wasn't in the spam or trash folders either. When I tried a work email, my confirmation email appeared immediately. Not sure if this is a Yahoo or Web site problem, but avoid it by using a non-Yahoo account.
If you don't have an email account, I found that mail.com has the quickest, easiest signup process. I know this because I had to create 4 separate email accounts because I kept having to start the process over.
- Financial information: Pull out your previous year's tax form because you'll need to enter income data.
- Personal information: Have the address and social security number for everyone who's applying for health insurance.
- Current insurance information: Even if you have employer-provided health insurance, you may still be able to shop for coverage in the marketplace. It depends on the cost of your employer coverage. If you do have employer coverage, the system will ask you detailed questions about it to determine your eligibility.
Since I didn't go through this section, I can't offer any suggestions, but a health care navigator can and so can the CS people at healthcare.gov.
Once you've created an account, checked your email and clicked the link to verify your email address, log into your healthcare.gov account and go to your personal profile information. To view your profile, look in the top right-hand corner for your name and a person silhouette. Click on it & there's a link for your profile.
Now it's time to verify your identity.
Hopefully, you can do this online. This is the step that hung up my first application on October 8. When you click the “verify identity” link, you'll be asked for your name, address, and SSN#.
Note: the form says that your middle name is “optional,” but others had trouble later in the application if they didn't always include their middle names. So put it in!
The next page will ask you several security questions to verify your identity. The same kinds of questions you have to answer when applying for a credit card online: “Which of these cities have you lived in previously?” “Which of the phone numbers have you had in the past?” Pretty straightforward, except that I got a question about which cat had I purchased health insurance for in the previous year: Fluffy, Raisin, Big Boy, Thunderpaws, or none of the above.
I hadn't bought vet insurance and have no cats with any of those names – even though “Thunderpaws” is a pretty darn awesome cat name! The system kept flagging my answer as incorrect and after 3 tries it locked me out and told me to call Experian to verify online. Which I did & they told me they showed me as “already verified” to go back to the site. Back & forth ensued for a while and I finally had to upload a copy of my driver's license on October 10. The phone rep promised it would be reviewed in 48-72 hours. I'm still waiting…..
Because that application seemed to be completely hung up, one of the phone reps suggested creating a new account (I had to use a different username & email address) and trying again. That time, I verified my identity online with no problem. You probably can as well, but do it carefully: you only have a few tries before you get locked out!
NOTE: once you do complete your online verification, the system just shows you a blank screen with the healthcare.gov logo at the top. That stumped me for a bit and I used the browser's back button to go back to the “My Account” page and saw that I was “verified!”
Filling Out The Application
After all this other stuff, this is the easy part! Especially if you're used to dealing with insurance companies and non-group applications, where – I kid you not – they ask questions like “how many sinus infections have you had in the past 10 years and on what dates?” And you know if you get the answer wrong – even by accident – the company could use that answer to deny you coverage in the future.
You'll be asked the names (remember to use everyone's middle name!), addresses, birth dates, & SSN#s for everyone who's applying for coverage and the system will ask you to verify the relationships between applications (spouse, son/daughter, step-son/daughter, father, mother, etc.).
You'll also have to answer financial questions. I checked the “self-employed” box, so it asked me what I expect my monthly income to be this month. Which seems odd because income usually fluctuates for the self-employed – and November/December are traditionally my slow months. Concerned about under-reporting income, I took the number from line 17 of our 2012 1040 form (business income) and divided it by 12.
The form will also ask you if you expect your income next year to be the same as this year. If not, fill in next year's estimate. Just in case, I added $5k to next year's estimate, but that's up to you.
If you say that you do have employer-provided health insurance, it takes you through a serious of steps where you enter your plan #, and other stuff. Since I haven't been in that section, I can't offer any advice, but you can get help by phone or from a local navigator.
Once you complete the form, the system will take a minute or so (if you're lucky) to determine your eligibility to purchase on the marketplace and calculate the amount of your tax credit (if you quality for one).
NOTE: the tax credit is a forward credit, meaning that you can set it to immediately reduce the amount of your monthly premium. So if your coverage costs $500/month and you're eligible for a $200 credit, your monthly cost to the insurance company is $300. That's a particular help for families on tight budgets. However, if you underestimate your income, you may have to pay back part of the credit when you file your taxes. And if your income is lower than expected, you may get an additional credit.
The system lets you modify this information during the year and adjust the credit amount as needed. So if we get a huge contract in June that's going to increase our income by a lot, I can sign in and report a “life change” and adjust the credit available.
Claiming Your Tax Credit
Once your eligibility is determined, you'll be able to review your eligibility letter online in a PDF.
Note: I had a problem with several applications where my eligibility letter told me that we were eligible for a credit of “NULL.” Somehow, the amount wasn't being calculated correctly and even when I tried to look at plans anyway, telling the system I didn't want to claim any credit, the application just locked up. There was no way for the healthcare.gov people to fix it at the time and my only option was to create a new account & fill out the application etc. again. I got really good at filling out that application, but fortunately, that problem was fixed in subsequent applications.
Enroll In A Plan
Once you have your letter, you're ready to view/compare plans & enroll. The system will show you a page with 3 steps – that you have to do in order.
Note: As you see in the image below, there is one green box and two “locked” boxes. Although it doesn't look like it when you run your cursor over the green box, it is a link and you have to double click it. Even though every other link on the page turns into a “hand” icon when you mouse over it, the SET link does not. I can't believe they haven't fixed it yet.
Double-click the SET in the green box & you'll go through steps to tell the system whether you want to apply the tax credit (if any) annually, monthly, etc. When you finish with that, the next box will “unlock” so you can “answer questions about your household.” On my form, it asked the relationship questions again; not sure why. But complete that and then (finally!) you'll get to compare plans!
There are a few things to watch out for during this process:
- You may have more than one “group.” Since our daughter is in Birmingham at college, BCBS considers her to be part of a different “group,” which was really confusing at first because I thought it was trying to write a separate policy with additional deductibles, etc. That's not the case.
If all the people you're insuring live at the same address, you'll probably all be in the same group. But if you have several kids away at college, you could have a couple of different “groups.”
The only issue with this is that you select a policy for each group. Multiple groups doesn’t affect your total premium and your tax credit (if any) is spread across groups, as is your deductible.
- Choose A Plan: You'll be able to view the available plans in your area and compare costs and plan coverages. Remember, you'll have to do that for each group if you have several groups.
Note:When I tried to look at the BCBS plan details by clicking the link at healthcare.gov, the links for all the BCBS plan details plans were broken. If they haven't fixed it by the time you shop, just correct the URL because they left out a colon. Instead of “http://www._____” the site has the address as “http//www_____.” Without that colon between the http and the slashes, the link is broken.
- Dental Insurance: You have the option to add a separate dental insurance plan to your health insurance and can browse plans. Note: when I looked at the plans but didn't select one, it seemed to confuse the system and wouldn't let me take the final enrollment step until I selected a dental plan – which I didn't want. I had to select a plan before the final step would “unlock.” At that point, I went back and unselected the dental plan and all was good.
Application Details Error Message: This is a real pain-in-the-butt message (see the image above). After the dental insurance problem, this message popped up at the top of the page. I'd seen it before in previous applications, and it's the singularly most frustrating problem I encountered.
The message makes you think that you have left something out of the application that you need to fix, but once the application is accepted as complete and the eligibility letter is created, you can't re-open the application and make changes. It bedeviled me through multiple applications and the phone support people couldn't help; they looked and showed the application as complete too – and couldn't open it either.
What I found was that clicking on the link in the error message sent me to a page that said my application was complete and it had a link to view my eligibility results. That page took me back to the enroll page…. Which had the error message that sent me back to the previous page….. It was a circle of hell there for a while.
But I was almost across the finish line and I just kept selecting and de-selecting plans until the error message finally went away. Other people have reported that the phone support people are now much better trained (or maybe just more experienced with some of the system oddities), and they can often fix whatever error is causing the application details message to appear.
Once you've selected your plan, you confirm it, and then have a page where you can pay online if the carrier accepts online payments. Anxious to move things along, I tried to make my first payment but the pay links didn't work.
Others who have already enrolled and received their plan documents report that they got online payment options/instructions in the packet from BCBS and also couldn't pay online through healthcare.gov
So now…. After hours of aggravation (where I often used language so bad that I'd have to ban myself from the blog if I transcribed it here) our application is complete and we're enrolled in a cheaper, better health insurance plan that will save us almost $800/month over what we'd pay if we just accepted the offer letter that BCBS sent us a few weeks ago.
Although when I started the process, I expected to be a consumer and not a beta tester, I ended up claiming both roles. Initially, the process was frustrating and the site operation was really poor at launch, but I know from experience that it's really working much better now. There are still a few bizarre things, but I was able to work around them and hopefully, you can learn from my experience.