Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Shut-down fall-out ripples through southern Minnesota families January 16, 2019

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
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The art of Roosevelt Elementary School student Anzal Abdi displayed during a 2018 Faribault area student art show at the Paradise Center for the Arts. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2018, Used here for illustration only. I prefer peace over conflict, resolution over discord.

 

I’M NOT ONE TO CREATE discord and division. I really don’t like conflict. So it’s not often I write on current political topics. Hot topics seem to bring out the worst in people, especially in online comments. So be forewarned. I moderate comments. I’m OK with disagreement. But only if it’s civil.

Here goes, the current day topic that has me shaking my head in disbelief:

This whole border wall funding-federal government shut-down makes zero sense. Why? Because federal employees and ordinary citizens who have nothing at all to do with the border wall are being hurt. Financially. Emotionally. I am surprised this situation has continued for this long. But then I’m not surprised. And, no, I won’t expand on that. You can read between the lines.

Only in recent days have I heard the stories of southern Minnesotans feeling the effects. My nephew for one. He is an air traffic controller. Currently unpaid. He and his young family of five are OK for now. They have enough money saved to cover expenses for the next several months. But they are expecting a baby in April and that’s a concern.

Another young couple is also expecting a baby soon. And they are in the process of buying a home. But with the partial federal government shut-down, the home loan process is stalled. Talk about stress.

The third family is also expecting a baby. The expectant father works for the federal prison system. For now, the family is OK. They still have their health insurance coverage, a major worry with that baby coming.

I can only imagine how many more individuals and families are feeling the financial fall-out of no paycheck. How many folks are awaiting loans and more, all delayed now because of the impasse? How many people on vacation now find they can’t visit federal sites they planned to see or are caught in long lines at airports? One can only hope a resolution is reached soon as effects of the shut-down ripple through our economy, our country.

TELL ME: Are you personally affected by the shut-down or do you know of someone who is affected?

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Surprise (not): Another increase in health insurance premiums… December 4, 2018

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
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A graphic illustrating options to consider. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

A DAY BEFORE THE MID-TERM ELECTION, my husband came home from work with our health insurance rates for 2019. I thought perhaps those rates would hold steady, maybe even drop a bit. I’d read all about premiums decreasing here in Minnesota in the new year.

But, surprise, our rates are rising. From $1,000/month to $1,069/month. For each of us. Do the math. Times two, our new monthly premiums total $2,138. Overwhelming, isn’t it?

Randy’s employer pays half ($534) his individual premium, which helps. But still, could you afford $1,603 in monthly premiums? That’s a lot of money. Money that we can’t save for retirement. Money that we can’t put toward replacement of our aging vehicles. Money that we can’t put toward a much-needed update of our 1970s vintage kitchen. Money that we can’t use for a vacation. Money that’s not going into the general economy, but rather to one place—the health insurance company.

The unbelievably high cost of health insurance for couples like us only years from retirement is a major financial burden. We’ve done all the right things. Spent our money wisely. Lived modestly. Invested and saved for retirement. Never purchased a new vehicle. Limited vacations to day trips or several days in Minnesota and neighboring states, with the exception of a road trip to Boston two years ago to see our son graduate from college.

I never thought that at this stage of our lives, we would be in this burdensome financial position. That Randy works for a small business and that I am self-employed places us in a difficult spot. Once insured through the individual market, I can no longer afford those even higher premiums. I don’t know if our premiums are so outrageously high simply because of our age or also because we are covered through a small business group pool of perhaps a half-dozen insured.

We can’t risk going without insurance. And, yes, I am aware of faith-based health cost sharing plans. I’ll revisit that option, which would mean switching doctors and seeking medical care outside my community and agreeing to some restrictions on coverage (such as on pre-existing conditions for a designated period and more). I’m perfectly happy with the excellent care I’ve gotten locally. I’d like to stay with the medical providers I know, like and trust.

But now that we will be paying another $103/month in premiums with individual deductibles that are increasing from $3,600/month to $4,000/month, all options are on the table. After all, there’s a lot of money at stake here. To be precise, $19,239 in premiums plus $8,000 in deductibles before insurance pays. Crazy, isn’t it? That’s over $27,000. We can’t afford to use our unaffordable health insurance.

Politicians, I’m waiting on you now to fulfill all your campaigns promises of affordable health insurance and healthcare. Oh, yeah, I’ve heard that before, same old same old…

THOUGHTS?

CLICK HERE to read a related story on health insurance costs.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

As health insurance costs rise, so does my personal financial concern November 1, 2017

 

EVERY YEAR ABOUT THIS TIME, my blood pressure temporarily spikes in response to my anger. Anger about ever-rising health insurance premiums depleting our family pocketbook faster than a pick pocket.

I’ve vented and raged and spewed my discontent here. My jaw drops. My mind thinks a few unprintable words. My stress rises. How can we continue to pay these astronomical premiums and still have money for basic needs like food, gas, utilities, clothes, etc?  I am thankful Randy and I paid off our mortgage decades ago, that our three kids are out of college and independent, that we’re OK driving aging (2003 and 2005) vehicles… We’ve always been, out of necessity, fiscally conservative, just as we were raised within poor rural families.

Let’s break it down. Health insurance premiums for my husband and me (I’m on his work plan) will go up $190 from $873/month to $1,000/month in 2018. That’s for each of us. Randy’s employer pays half his premium, $500. So we will shell out $1,500/month, or $18,000/annually. But before insurance kicks in, we must pay $3,600 each in deductibles. Alright then.

Let’s recrunch those numbers. In reality, our premiums are $1,300/month each if we need medical care and reach our deductibles. Times two, that’s $2,600/month or $31,200/year. Subtract the $6,000 Randy’s employer pays for his insurance and we’re down to $25,200. Still.

This year I met my $3,700 deductible. But I paid out $14,176 in premiums and deductible for around $4,000 (maybe a bit more; some bills haven’t processed yet) in medical expenses. I’m no math whiz. But even I can see that makes zero financial sense.

Holy, cow.

Somehow we’ve managed on a modest income, Randy’s as an automotive machinist and mine as a self-employed photographer and writer. But these latest insurance premium hikes are pushing us to a financial breaking point. I need to figure out an alternative to the $1,500 to be deducted from Randy’s paychecks each month for health insurance in 2018. Our incomes are not increasing to meet this through-the-roof expense.

My kneejerk brainstorming produced the following options and reactions:

  • Go without health insurance. Not a good idea given our ages and the financial risk.
  • Find jobs with better benefits. At age 61, that’s unlikely.
  • Take on second part-time jobs.
  • Use a Christian-based health cost sharing plan. A strong possibility that requires additional investigation.

Our eldest daughter suggested we move to Canada with its publicly-financed healthcare. I know little about that system. But in a recent conversation with a Canadian visiting her brother here in Minnesota, I heard all about the shortage of doctors and the months of waiting to see one. Even if you’re seriously ill. No, thank you. Besides, I won’t move that far from my granddaughter.

There you go. Now, on to the research, the discussions, the continuing frustration and anger and stress and number crunching that each autumn overtake me.

I’ve joked with Randy that soon he’ll pay his employer to work because nothing will remain of his paychecks. I wish that statement didn’t feel uncomfortably close to reality.

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AS BAD AS THE RATE HIKES would be for us, I know it could be worse. I’ve seen rates from a major carrier for individual off-exchange health insurance in my county of Rice and seven other southern Minnesota counties. If I chose the bronze plan (least expensive) with a $6,650 deductible, my monthly premium would be $1,361. Take that premium and deductible times two (there would be no subsidy from Randy’s employer) and our health coverage would cost $45,964 before medical bills would be covered. Holy cow. Who can afford that? Not us.

I realize many of you, especially self-employed small business owners or employees of small businesses, are dealing with the same absurd health insurance premiums. I don’t have an answer. I just know that the escalating cost of health insurance is creating a personal financial crisis for many of us. Additionally, because of those costs and matching high deductibles, we can’t afford medical care. Now does that make sense?

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TELL ME: Are you dealing with/facing similar skyrocketing health insurance premiums? I’d like to hear about your situation and what you are doing. Are you going without insurance? Selected another option? Found a job with better benefits? Whatever you have done, or haven’t, I’m listening.

Please note that I moderate all comments. So please keep the discussion on topic and civil.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

When you can no longer afford health insurance… October 26, 2016

I live on one of Faribault's busiest residential streets, also a main route for the ambulance which is based near my home.

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

ABOUT A YEAR AGO, I penned a post expressing my outrage at the ever-rising cost of health insurance.

I expected those costs to stabilize. I was wrong. So here I am, writing and agonizing again about insurance rates that are through the roof nearly unaffordable for my husband and me.

Beginning on January 1, our monthly premiums will total $1,746, of which we will pay $1,310. Add in $3,700 deductibles for each of us and you can see the financial ridiculousness of this plan. Before we can benefit from this health insurance offered through Randy’s employer, we will spend thousands and thousands of dollars. Like $14,176 for me and $8,944 for Randy since his employer pays half ($437/month) of his premium.

We are not wealthy. Nor are we poor. We are lower middle income. I am self-employed. Randy has worked the same job for more than 30 years. His benefits are minimal.

This year we both turned sixty, bumping us up on January 1, 2017, into a newer and higher premium bracket. Lucky us.

In 2016, our health insurance premiums were $723/month each for policies with a $3,500 per person deductible. In the new year, we will pay $225 more a month (nearly a 21 percent increase) with $3,700 deductibles.

This cannot continue. The cost of health insurance premiums threatens our financial stability. Paying $15,720 a year in premiums is crazy and unaffordable. We are careful with our money. Thankfully, years ago we paid off the mortgage on our modest home. We don’t take big vacations. We seldom dine out. We don’t own new vehicles. We limit our spending. But we have to eat and pay other basic cost of living bills.

Something has to give. I wish I had the answer. Of one thing I am certain. I am sick and tired of health insurance costs that have skyrocketed. It’s to the point where we can’t afford to get sick or to seek medical treatment. We can’t save money for retirement. The cost of health insurance and healthcare is my greatest financial worry.

I know many others are in the same predicament. The Minnesota legislature intends to call a special session addressing the crisis, specifically for those buying individual plans. Up until a year ago, I had an individual plan, too. What am I missing here? I was advised that we cannot apply for coverage through the state run marketplace, MNsure, (thus qualifying for a subsidy) because we have insurance available through an (my husband’s) employer.

TELL ME: How about you? Are you in the same situation as us? Do you have a solution to this crisis?

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

When health insurance costs become your biggest financial fear December 2, 2015

Insurance options and calculator - CopyI EXPECTED THE INCREASE. Yet, when I received notice of a $190 monthly hike in my health insurance premium, I reacted with shock. And anger. My new premium for an individual policy with a $6,550 deductible will be $602. Are you BLEEPING kidding me? That’s a 46 percent increase from my current $412/month premium. Plus, the deductible jumped $1,350 (from $5,200). For a “bronze” policy that basically offers only catastrophic coverage.

I decided to let the news simmer. Maybe time would ease the sticker shock, the worry about extracting more money from an already tight budget. Perhaps I would accept this as simply the way things are under the Affordable Care Act. That hasn’t happened. I’m still mad. There’s nothing affordable about my health insurance premium.

But anger doesn’t solve problems. I needed to make a decision and stop thinking that I could just as well drive down the highway and toss $7,224 out the window toward the offices of a company that advises me in its ad campaigns to Live Fearless with a Trusted Name. Really? The cost of health insurance is now my biggest financial fear.

The health insurance issue wasn’t going away. So I scheduled an appointment with our accountant (who also sells insurance for the aforementioned company) to discuss options. She is as upset as my husband and me about the escalating cost of health insurance.

In three columns on lined paper, she inked in the existing options—stick with my individual plan or choose one of two plans offered through my husband’s employer. We inquired about other plans, too, and I later followed up by visiting the MNsure website to compare plans. Since my husband’s employer offers health insurance, we can’t get a subsidy anyway and it would be minimal if we could.

We settled on a $3,500/person deductible company plan with a $723/person monthly premium. (With the Live Fearless company.) It made the most sense given the premium and deductible differences and the impact on our taxes (which is why we saw the accountant).

My husband’s employer pays half of his premium. That $361/month will help.

I will now pay $723/month rather than $412/month. My health insurance in 2016 will cost me $8,676 compared to $4,944 currently.

Add in another $204/month for our college son’s health insurance premium and our family will fork out $1,288/month for health insurance premiums in 2016. (Keep in mind that the employer will add $4,332 to the pot, pushing the total annual premium cost to $19,788) Affordable? No. But I suppose one could argue that, if we need to use our health insurance beyond our $3,500 deductibles (for my husband and me) and rack up substantial medical bills, we will consider the $15,456 we paid in 2016 premiums well spent.

Health insurance, for us and I suspect many, has become basically a catastrophic plan that keeps us from going to the doctor.

Thankfully, our home mortgage was paid off years ago. We have income. Both of us grew up in poor families, therefore are thrifty. Yet, at this stage in our lives nearing retirement, we shouldn’t have to worry about out-of-control, astronomical health insurance premiums.

Something has to give here. With so much of our income now going toward health insurance, we are not spending elsewhere. Or saving for retirement. Like our tightening family budget, the economy will feel the impact.

GO AHEAD, VENT. Tell me your health insurance woes. Solutions are welcome. I know my family is far from alone in facing these excessive health insurance costs.

Click here to read a related story published on MPR.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

There are only two things certain in life, death & taxes, but not always October 15, 2015

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:01 AM
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FOR A FLEETING MOMENT I thought I’d made an error.

You know that moment—when you think your luck has shifted and your day is about to become very good.

That happened last Friday when I received a letter from the Rice County Auditor-Treasurer’s office. Inside I found my check for payment of my second half property taxes. The check was being returned, the correspondence noted, because all taxes were already paid.

What? Had I made an error? I checked my records. No, no mistake. For a moment I considered that perhaps an anonymous philanthropist had paid my taxes.

Within the hour, I was at the Auditor-Treasurer’s office inquiring. Computer problems, the employee explained, resulted in the erroneous check return. I still owed $311 and could expect a follow-up letter.

Sure enough, the next day a letter arrived:

A snippet of the letter I received with identifying info cropped.

A snippet of the letter I received with identifying info cropped.

Rats.

How many other Rice County property owners received the first letter and momentarily celebrated? Legally, would a property owner need to pay his/her taxes if he/she received a “paid in full” notice like I got?

Why wasn’t the error caught before the initial letter was mailed? Are “issues with our computers” truly “issues with our computers?” Or can issues be traced to a human?

And, yes, I got a receipt from the county employee after my office visit. Proof that I’d paid my taxes. In full.

If you haven’t yet paid your property taxes and live in Minnesota, your second half payment is due today, October 15. Unless, of course, a mysterious benefactor has secretly paid on your behalf.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

On the cost of health insurance: Sometimes all you can do is laugh February 15, 2015

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 11:42 AM
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I PROBABLY SHOULDN’T be penning this post because it’s likely to raise my blood pressure. And that’s not a good thing considering I want to avoid activity that would necessitate a doctor’s visit.

Don’t get me wrong. I am thankful for doctors and nurses and other medical professionals who possess the skills and talent to help heal people.

But I’m frustrated about the ever-rising cost of health insurance. Last year my family forked out $11,022 to cover three of us—two late fifty-somethings and a 20-year-old. Do your math. That’s just shy of $919/month.

Add on the $4,048 we paid out-of-pocket for medical expenses in 2014 and that’s a significant chunk of money going toward healthcare costs.

Info from my current health insurance documents.

Info from my current health insurance documents.

The monthly premium on my individual plan this year has dropped $30 to $412/month. Now you might think that a good thing. But, in order to keep my premium down, I switched insurance companies and now have a much higher deductible—$5,200 instead of $2,000.

When I was considering my options in November, after my then insurer informed me that my 2015 monthly rate would skyrocket from $441 to $777, I felt like I was gambling. I am. I’m gambling on not needing to visit a doctor, except for “free” preventative care, in 2015.

Sure we have “free” preventative care now, which is great. But at what cost? Is it really “free?”

And, yes, I checked into whether I qualify for financial assistance through MNsure, the state’s online health insurance marketplace. I don’t given I could get on my husband’s plan through his employer. Never mind that I would need to pay the full $777/month premium. So that option was out. That left me searching for an individual plan I could afford. (It doesn’t exist.)

Minnesota Public Radio nailed it in a February 10 headline, High deductibles keep patients away from care. (Click here to read that story.) Yes, as crazy as it sounds, many of us now carry deductibles so high that we think twice about going to the doctor. What good is health insurance then?

I consider my health insurance coverage a catastrophic plan. I need the coverage “just in case” something major happens.

These ever-rising costs need to be brought under control. The current system isn’t working for lower middle income families like mine and, I expect, most families except those fortunate enough to have full employer paid health insurance.

Employers are feeling the financial burden, too. I’d guess some small business owners have had to reduce benefits or even lay off employees.

One positive note with healthcare reform, though, is the elimination of the pre-existing condition clause that prevented me from switching insurers.

I appreciate the approach taken by Almost Iowa, a southern Minnesota blogger whose wife was recently laid off. This blogger writes humorous and sarcastic fiction. Brilliantly. He addresses the issue of health insurance premiums and deductibles in “I married the wrong girl!”  Just like the MPR story, he nailed it. (Click here to read.)

Every fiction writer knows that beneath the surface always lies some bit of truth.

“I married the wrong girl!” made me laugh out loud in an “I wish this wasn’t true” sort of way. But, as they say, laughter is the best medicine. And that doesn’t cost us anything.

FYI: Today marks the final day to open enroll through MNsure, in other words the last day you can purchase health insurance through this venue until the next open enroll later this year.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling