Budget bubble boy’s journey to health care

CORRECTION: 4/6/17 — The term “health care” was edited to be two words, as before it was written one word.

Health care in the United States is one of the most expensive in the world. I’d always read that the cost of a hip replacement in the United States is the same amount as flying to Spain, living in Madrid for two years, learning Spanish, getting your hip replaced, running with the bulls, breaking your hip and getting it replaced again, and flying home. While that adage has been debated heavily, the reality isn’t far off.

Growing up, I saw the real cost of health care affect my family in several scary ways. I’ve thankfully never broken a bone and only been to the hospital once as a child (since being born), but more than once I chose to swallow the pain instead of going to the doctor. I like to call this my budget bubble: if I can help it, endure it. If I can’t help it, don’t talk about it and hope that it goes away. Food for thought, if you think you might have a concussion, go to the doctor. Three years ago, I lost my sense of smell to one dumb night in suburban Clear Lake. Head injuries are no joke.

That dumb night was my first real wake-up call to health care as an adult. A few days after my K.O., I realized that I was running out of time on my mom’s insurance and a few health issues were presenting themselves to me. I started talking to friends in the medical field about various weird yet connected symptoms. Each conversation ended with, “Go see a doctor.” But I was a broke college student who couldn’t afford to own a car, let alone afford to go to the hospital for what was almost assuredly going to be a battery of tests. So, I nodded, said, “Yeah, you’re probably right about that. I’ll get right on it.” And I promptly did absolutely nothing about it.

Fast-forward to my 26th birthday last fall and a heavy realization hit me. Health care was expensive, but up until now, I’d always had some sort of health insurance to fall back on. Now, however, I was in open water and on my own. I was facing potential scenarios where, if something did happen to me, I would be forced to weather a bill of unrelenting proportions (or worse, be turned away from private hospitals). My budget bubble burst and I felt the cold sting of adulthood and reality. I floundered. I turned to my family first, coyly asking about health insurance. “What’s a premium? What’s a deductible? What about networks, what are those?” What were my options as a broke student working a part-time job with no transportation? I wasn’t exactly rolling in green paper freedom. Do I save money and just leave the country?

I turned once more to friends for advice, but this time my questions were directed towards what insurance they had. Some of them got benefits from work that included a company insurance policy; others had their parents helping them with costs. Some of them just didn’t have it.

One of the biggest issues I ran into was realizing that under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), I would be charged a penalty for not having health insurance. Normally this wouldn’t be too terrible of a problem, but I couldn’t afford the penalty or the health insurance they offered. I was sandwiched between two debts that were both daunting to my pre-existing aversion to hospital bills. I was drowning in worry and had no clue where to begin.

An answer emerged in the form of graduate school here at UHCL. I got a boost of financial aid which allowed me to consider health insurance. My only dilemma was the timing. I wouldn’t be able to afford health insurance for another five months due to budget restraints. I honestly considered strapping into an actual bubble and riding out the Houston winter in isolation to avoid getting sick.

So, I had a future that was insured, I just had to pick my plan. Here’s when I turned to my girlfriend and sister for help. My sister had experience getting health care through the ACA, my girlfriend through UHCL. Yes, it turns out UHCL offers health insurance to students. I looked at the costs and benefits and determined that paying out a lump sum for coverage extending to my next financial aid disbursement was worthwhile to me. I am now a health insured adult! GOOD BYE BUBBLE, HELLO BILLS! Yes, health care in the United States is expensive as hell but it’s still better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.

So, to you, the potentially uninsured reader. What are your options? How do you get insured?

  • HealthCare.gov has some crucial information for you when it comes to getting coverage through the government.
  • If you work full-time, you might be eligible for health insurance through your employer. Ask your boss for more information on this. The keyword is “full-time.” If you’re part-time or seasonal, you might not apply.
  • If you don’t have insurance through your job, and you can’t get coverage through your parents, shop around the Health Insurance Marketplace. Here you can expect some tax credits to help cover your insurance or certain plans that are super cheap but offer minimal coverage.
  • Private marketplace insurance companies offer plans that cover the bare necessities while still meeting the minimum requirements under ACA.
  • Student health insurance is available through UHCL! Enrollment occurs in periods, the next period being Summer Open enrollment for domestic students which will run from May 5 to July 5. They offer payment plans and one-time payouts for a year of coverage, as well as optional dental coverage. FYI: if you sign up during the enrollment period, you will be charged the day of for coverage, even if your coverage doesn’t begin that day.
  • None of this work out for you? There’s short-term medical insurance that is affordable to almost everyone and will help with the barest of bare necessities. These plans can cover you for as little as a month up to a year and will vary from state to state. They’re generally offered by private insurance companies and are great for young adults who are broke, between jobs, or just need some coverage between plans.

All of this is worth considering when looking for health insurance. There are a lot of options out there, and it can seem overwhelming. Part of becoming an adult is taking an afternoon to manage your health, your budget, your taxes, etc. If you do currently have coverage, keep track of important details like your length of coverage, your cut-off date, your birthday (if you’re younger than 26) and what your plan covers.

Keep in mind, the Affordable Care Act is in the process of getting repealed and replaced by 2018, but the first piece of legislation to replace it keeps two of the biggest benefits: you can stay on your parents’ insurance if you’re younger than 26, and you can’t be denied coverage for a pre-existing condition.

What plan will suit you best? I can’t say. I’ve never broken a bone or gotten pneumonia, but I have had a lot of head injuries and my heart beats irregularly more often than I am comfortable with. Don’t wait until the last second. Go see a doctor, wherever you find it most convenient and affordable. Don’t be me.

Originally published at UHCL The Signal.