By JoAnn Merrigan
“As an adult I only ran into one or two jobs that offered medical benefits.” Keleigh Ulbrich of Savannah tells me. So last fall, the single working mom did something she’d never been able to do. She sat down at her computer and bought medical insurance through the federal exchange. She knew there had been lots of issues with the federal website but by the time she tried in December, she says things went smoothly and she bought coverage in half an hour. And while Keleigh ironically works as an office manager for a small medical practice, she still needs help to afford insurance. The federal subsidy offered her the help she has always needed. “I got great coverage and I ended not paying much at all because of my income,” she told me.
So for the first time in her life, Keleigh is able to schedule actual doctor appointments. “Before I was just going to health clinics and that’s hit or miss,” she said. “Sometimes you stay all day and miss work and at the end of the day, they might not even be able to help you.”
Now there’s a question about Keleigh’s coverage and that of an estimated 190,000 other Georgians who bought coverage through the federal exchange. A federal court ruling says that people should only get subsidies IF their state runs the exchange. (Georgia does not.) Later that same day, a second court ruled it is “okay” to apply the federal subsidies to consumers even if their states were not running an exchange.
For people like Keleigh, it certainly seems to leave them in the middle. “I think having insurance is great and I’m excited. But if I had to go back to no insurance I’m sure I would just stumble back into the clinics and jump right back into the bandwagon of public health, which isn’t easy,” she said. “But when it comes to government polices you just have to go with it, because you can’t really depend on them to make a decision that’s going to be permanent.”
Liz Coyle of Georgia Watch an Atlanta based consumer group might agree with Keleigh but finds its troubling. “There are hundreds of thousands of people in Georgia right now who have access to affordable health care who did not before,” Coyle told me. “Why it continues to be such a political football is beyond me.
Georgia Watch estimates that slightly more than 300,000 people in Georgia have purchased insurance through the federal exchange. However, the Georgia Insurance Commissioner’s office says it’s actually far fewer than that, about 190,000 people. Still both Georgia Watch and the Commissioner’s Office agree that the vast majority of people who used the federal exchange (up to 90%) qualified for a subsidy.
Coyle says in terms of need, people in Georgia came in a close second to Mississippi (normally considered the poorest and one of the most unhealthy states.) “What all this tells me is that a lot of people in Georgia needed health insurance they could afford and now through the Affordable Care Act, they have it,” Coyle told me.
She also says Georgia Watch’s research indicates that on average many who applied for insurance received it for about $340 per month. “But because most of them are so low income, the subsidies kicked in and they’re actually paying only about $54 per month,” Coyle said.
Georgia Watch says it’s concerned that a program that is now working for the most vulnerable continues to be in jeopardy. “Why anybody would want to deny people affordable healthcare is beyond me,” Coyle told me.
Of course the arguments against the Affordable Care Act persist. States like Georgia that refused to establish an exchange said the law would ultimately hurt other consumers whose policies would be canceled or increased in price.
Coyle says her research at least says that is proving not to be the case. “We are not seeing policies increase at the rate many states predicted. Politicians are using this as a campaign issue while people around the state are getting access to health care with affordable plans they didn’t have before,” she said.
Coyle doesn’t expect Keleigh’s plan or that of thousands of others to be effected this year. The Obama Administration has already indicated it will appeal the ruling that says the federal subsidies cannot be applied in some states. But meanwhile, Keleigh does wonder what may happen next year. “It has been nice to have that insurance card that says I have coverage, I have the right to healthcare,” she told us.