Medical breakthrough 

Obamacare is a frustrating mess, but is it worth it?

I was one of the many Americans who visited the HealthCare.gov website back on Oct. 1, when it first launched. I got into the site with no problems, and was actually able to create an account, or so I thought. After a couple of attempts to move beyond the account-creation step were met by error messages and frozen pages, I stopped. I was not to be one of the six people who reportedly ran the gauntlet successfully that first day.

No big deal, I figured. This is a hugely complex system with a gazillion moving parts, so I'd give them a while to make adjustments, and I'd come back to get health care for myself, my wife and our 8-year-old son after they smoothed out the process. But as time rolled on and the cutoff date for coverage beginning at the first of the year approached, I was still hearing nightmare stories from people who weren't able to navigate the site.

So I girded up that last holiday weekend before the deadline, and jumped into the fray. Over Sunday and Monday, I spent roughly seven hours on the website and another three hours on the phone (all on hold, all unrequited). Though I had been able to go through nearly the entire application process online—re-establishing an account, entering household and income information, even browsing and selecting plans—the website would not let me finish the job. I was literally clicking on a button that said "Finish" and every time I did so I would get routed to a page with an error message.

Late that afternoon I read on The New York Times website that the deadline had been extended by one more day, to Dec. 24, Christmas Eve. So I shut down my computer with the hopes of rebooting the next day and clicking that one button to finish the process. But that button behaved no differently the next morning.

Out of desperation, I resolved to achieve a task upon which I had already wasted three hours of hold time. I was going to call the 800 number and wait as long as it took until a human would pick up the other end of the call and rescue me from this purgatory (though the choice of hold music pushed the needle closer to hell).

It took about 75 minutes before a nice lady picked up the phone. My hope that she could simply help me complete the laborious process with a mouse click or two vanished quickly, as she informed me she could not access my account and that we'd have to start over. Beaten by the process and grateful for human contact, I meekly acquiesced and over the course of the next two hours we rebuilt my entire application. I found it interesting that she was subject to the same crashes and errors that I had experienced, but she did seem to have some sort of magical rebooting ability that kept the delays to a relative minimum.

This is the part where you'd probably expect a withering indictment of government incompetency, a polemic on the inexcusable lack of foresight and the hubris of overreaching. But you'd be wrong.

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A couple of years ago the well-paying job I held left for the Midwest, but my wife and I valued our Montana lives more than financial security. We knew that we would be taking a step back in terms of health insurance—the COBRA quote for maintaining the health care plan provided by my employer was greater than our mortgage payment—but we did not anticipate what happened next.

A couple of years earlier, my wife—who ranks among the toughest people I've ever met—began experiencing a mysterious set of neurological symptoms. She went through nearly six months of testing but none of the specialists who treated her were able to identify the source.

We applied for a family plan from a well-known insurance company. They denied coverage for my wife, at first citing an incomplete set of medical records. We resubmitted her records—the same, complete set we had sent the first time—and then they denied her on the basis of a missing, specific test result. When we sent in the test result for the third time—negative, as were all the tests she endured—they denied her on the grounds that some very small percentage of these tests were known to show false negatives. Now, with the perspective that time provides, I can appreciate the cleverness and agility with which they answered the question: Can a condition be pre-existing, even if it's been aggressively undiagnosed?

So for the last two years, while my son and I have been covered by a bronze-level plan (because of its crappy benefits, the plan was to be forcibly modified by the Affordable Care Act), my wife has been ineligible for any coverage short of disaster. And as those of you who have been in similar circumstance can attest, the realization that your family is one bad turn away from potential financial ruin is more than uncomfortable. In fact, it's terrifying.

So when I hung up the phone with the Obamacare representative, the considerable frustration that had plagued me during the enrollment process was immediately and unexpectedly replaced with a massive endorphin surge, the magnitude of which made me realize just how insidiously the ever-present fear of disaster had infiltrated our lives.

For a couple hundred dollars more per month than the plan shared by me and my son, we now had medical coverage for all three of us—my wife and I on a gold plan, meaning we can now actually afford medical care when we need it—as well as dental coverage, which had previously been out of the question.

And yes, the primary reason we were able to upgrade our coverage is due to the tax credits built in to the ACA, which, I suppose, makes us part of the class of "takers" so vilified by a certain stripe of politician and pundit. But here's the deal: We both work hard, and long. We pay taxes. We employ people. We care enough about our community to devote a fair share of off-time to unpaid civic duties.

So I don't feel the least bit conflicted about the "handout" that enables the peace of mind now enjoyed by me and my wife. And as for the question of whether that particular peace of mind is our right as Americans, all I can say is that is sure feels like one to me.

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