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Persistence Pays Off For Uninsured Alaskan

Posted: November 7, 2013

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A hairdresser in Alaska is one of the first people to get health insurance through HealthCare.gov. The 37-year-old woman has a chronic thyroid problem, so she's thrilled to find affordable coverage. Insurers are bracing for sick people like her to be among the first entering the market.

Hairdresser Lara Imler used to be an accountant. She doesn't miss her old job, except for the insurance.

Hairdresser Lara Imler used to be an accountant. She doesn't miss her old job, except for the insurance.

Despite all the problems with HealthCare.gov, a few dozen Alaskans have managed to enroll in a health plan through the marketplace. Lara Imler is one of them.

Imler, a 37-year-old hair stylist in Anchorage, ditched her office job as an accountant in 2004. She says she loves making people feel better about themselves and is a lot happier cutting hair than she was sitting in front of a computer. But she does miss one big thing about her old job: "I had health insurance, and it was wonderful."

Even without health insurance, Imler spends a lot of time in doctors' offices. She has Hashimoto's disease, a thyroid disorder. The treatments and blood tests she needs are expensive, but not as expensive as buying insurance in Alaska's individual market.

"Being self-employed, getting my premium at anything reasonable wasn't happening," she says. "I think my last quote was $1,200 a month for myself."

Imler was determined to find something better on the new Affordable Care Act marketplace.

She logged onto HealthCare.gov a few days after it went live last month. She tried four times that day and four more times the first week but kept running into messages that the site was unavailable. So she decided to wait a few weeks. On Oct. 24, she logged back in and slowly slogged through the process.

Imler's degree is in computer programming, and she's even built a few websites. She thinks that experience helped her persevere through the trouble spots on HealthCare.gov.

"You get to a point where you finally get to pick what health insurance you want and all the buttons have to be double-clicked. If you don't know that or try that, it doesn't go anywhere. It just sits there," says Imler. "This website is so not user-friendly. You can't figure out what they're trying to get you to do, unless you accidentally get there."

About two hours after she started, she landed on a screen that told her she had successfully enrolled. She was pleasantly surprised by the price. Imler qualified for subsidies and chose a mid-level plan that will cost her $110 a month.

"The website sucks. I'm not going to lie," she says, "But the idea that I might be able to afford health insurance, is huge to me. It will be a huge burden off my family."

The plan is a great deal for Imler, though it may be a different story for her insurance company. The claims from her chronic condition are likely to pile up quickly.

But insurance companies are braced for people like Imler, especially during the first year. Jeff Davis, president of Premera Alaska, says the company is prepared to lose money in 2014, maybe even a lot of money. But in the long run, he thinks Premera can balance the mix with healthy people.

"The first wave will be people who know they need coverage, so that's a little scary," Davis says. "So then, the question and the challenge becomes, how do we help inform others, particularly those who are subsidy eligible, that this is available to them and help them figure out how to get to it."

Imler is still waiting for enrollment confirmation from her new insurance company. She's optimistic that will come soon. If it doesn't, she'll start all over with HealthCare.gov.

This story is part of a partnership among NPR, Alaska Public Radio Network and Kaiser Health News.

Copyright 2014 Alaska Public Radio Network. To see more, visit http://www.aprn.org/.

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