Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by 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


My health insurance premium goes through the roof & I’m mad as… November 4, 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 6:00 AM
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But still, I was hopeful it wasn’t.

And I am raging mad. I’d write mad as h*** except I prefer not to swear.

On Monday I received a packet of information from my health insurance carrier, PreferredOne. It contained not a single word of good news.

The letter I received from my health insurance carrier.

The letter I received from my health insurance carrier.

Instead, I was notified that, if I stay with my current SignatureChoice Plus plan with a $2,000 deductible, copay and 100 percent coinsurance, my monthly premium will skyrocket a whopping 76 percent.

That’s right. Seventy-six percent.

My new monthly premium, effective January 1, will be $777 compared to my current $441.

Are you kidding? I cannot even begin to express how angry I am at this ridiculous rate increase. If this is affordable health insurance, then I wonder what the definition is of unaffordable health insurance.

Likewise, my husband is seeing a similar increase in the cost of his health insurance. His employer pays half his premium, which will be $778/month effective January 1.

We insure our college-aged son, too, through a plan offered at his East Coast university. At $185/month, that seems dirt cheap.

I have no idea what we are going to do. None. But to pay $1,351/month in health insurance premiums is not affordable on our income.

Some of my choices if I stay with PreferredOne.

Some of my choices if I stay with PreferredOne.

I will spend the next few weeks exploring options. After my nightmarish experience with MNSure last year, I am hesitant to try that route. But I’ll grit my teeth, bite my tongue (maybe), attempt to check my disdain and wade through the process which is sure to anger and frustrate me. I anticipate a system overload as nearly 60 percent of those purchasing insurance through MNSure last year were with PreferredOne. Now that Golden Valley based company has dropped out of MNSure and all those folks, plus individuals like me, will be shopping for new plans.

Early on I was optimistic that healthcare reform might work, that costs might be contained, that the average person could afford health insurance. No more.

HOW ABOUT YOU? Are you, like my husband and me, facing unaffordable health insurance premiums? What are you going to do?

What’s your take on this mess? At whom should my anger be directed? Politicians? Health insurance companies? Who?

We need some accountability here.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Why I chose the open market over MNSure January 2, 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 6:00 AM
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ONE OF MY GREATEST STRESSORS in 2013 involved health insurance. After hours of research, many phone calls, an in-person meeting with MNSure assisters, ongoing issues with the state’s health insurance exchange website, many attempts to complete an application, and some muttered choice words, tears and extreme frustration, I finally have a new insurance plan with a lower deductible, better benefits and a lower premium than my old plan.

MNSure website edited screen shot

An edited screen shot of the mnsure.org home page.

But it’s through the open market, not Minnesota’s online health insurance exchange.

That’s despite qualifying for $18 in monthly assistance, or so I’ve been notified online and in a letter I received on December 31, 2013, from MNSure.

No, thank you. I do not want the $216 annual subsidy to help pay my health insurance premium. It is not worth the uncertainty and stress and dealing with a government program. If the assistance was higher, I likely would accept the monies. But then again, maybe not.

So for now I’ve opted to purchase health insurance off the exchange for $441/month.

I’ve experienced too much uncertainty and confusion through the entire MNSure process from unclear application questions to frustrated assisters to a MNSure rep who phoned to tell me I had to resubmit my app because, “due to technical errors, calculations were incorrect.” Initially I was told I didn’t qualify for any government aid.

How could I believe anything I was told or read or mailed? My trust and confidence in the process have been nearly non-existent.

Sunday morning, after church, my husband and I sat down at the dining room table and examined off-exchange policies from two companies. I needed to choose a new plan because I could no longer afford my grandfathered-in $3,000 deductible individual policy. The premium on that plan increased $108, to $562/month, on January 1, 2014, with no change in benefits, including no free preventative care.

To be honest, my insurer ticked me off with the $108/month premium increase, sending me a bill for $1,627 (which I paid) and then billing me for an additional $300 shortly thereafter to continue my coverage until April 1. I won’t get into details, but suffice to say I was not happy. The additional $300 payment issue was finally resolved to my satisfaction, but still left me angry that I even had to deal with this situation in the first place.

I am now with a new company, and therein lies the single most positive change for me through the Affordable Care Act. Prior to this, due to a pre-existing condition, I was stuck with my existing health plan. Now I cannot be denied coverage because of that existing health issue and I have “free” preventative care.

If only health insurance premiums would decrease, I’d be even more pleased. My family forks out $926/month for health insurance premiums for three of us. And, in my opinion, that isn’t exactly affordable.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Beyond frustrated with MNSure December 19, 2013

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 6:00 AM
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I REALLY DIDN’T THINK I would be personally impacted by all of the problems plaguing MNSure, Minnesota’s online health insurance exchange. But, oh, how wrong I was about that.

First, a little background: Since completing a MNSure application on November 25, I’ve been waiting to see if I qualify for a subsidy. I got a response in 2 ½ weeks, which is a positive. I expected the process would take longer. I’d delayed applying in hopes that the bugs would be worked out of the system.

Friday I learned that I don’t qualify for assistance, although trained assisters guiding me through the application process said I should qualify based on income guidelines.

The MNSure mailing stated that I would receive a second mailing explaining why I do not qualify. That’s efficiency.

Then, on Monday, a MNSure rep called. Due to “technical errors, calculations were incorrect” and I may, indeed, qualify for assistance or a credit, she said. Good news for me, I thought.

But then she dropped the bombshell: I would need to resubmit my application.

Are you kidding? According to one news report, I am among about 1,000 Minnesotans who will need to resubmit.

She assured me, “It’s not your fault.” The rep sounded sincerely apologetic, extremely stressed and deeply frustrated.

A screen shot of the MNsure website.

A screen shot of the MNsure website.

Her frustration did not match mine when I later went onto the MNSure website to once again begin the long, tedious process of completing my application. The first time I worked with a trained assister for 1 1/2 hours to complete the app.

Not to my great surprise, I got this message: “the mnsure system experienced an unexpected exception and cannot fulfill your request (500 http error).”

OK, then. This is the same message I’d gotten many times previously while on the website. And, yes, I am using one of the recommended browsers.

I tried again later and was able to begin working on my application. As I plowed through the questions, unsure how to respond to some (because even the MNSure rep was wishy washy when I asked for clarification), I reached a point where I needed info from my husband’s employer. So I decided to save my app and resume work the next day. Major mistake. The information I’d worked an hour to input, and then saved, simply vanished. Yup. Not there.

I phoned the MNSure rep who’d called me earlier and this time I told her I was p__d. It is not a word I use often.

Her frustration nearly matched mine.  “I don’t know how people have stuck with it this long,” she said, along with a few other things I won’t share.

Well, for now, I’m not sticking with it. I’ve already invested hours and hours of my time working on the app and gathering and reading info on the health insurance options available to me. I have no clue what to do. I’m stressed to the max by this process and do not want to think about it anymore until after Christmas.

So I’ve paid my $1,627 premium for 2 1/2 months of coverage under my existing grandfathered-in $3,000 deductible individual health insurance plan until I figure out this mess.

My premium increased $108 from $454/month to $562/month with no change in benefits, including no free preventative coverage.

I attribute the major increase in my health insurance premium to the Affordable Care Act. Yet, I was one of the lucky ones. My plan wasn’t dropped like that of others with individual policies. But I am being forced out of my policy because I can no longer afford the premium.

Despite all of this, the Affordable Care Act brings one positive for me personally. Up until now, because of a pre-existing condition, I was stuck with my existing health insurance plan. Now I can shop. But I don’t like shopping, especially for insurance.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Why my blood pressure is rising September 7, 2013

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 6:00 AM
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I live on one of Faribault's busiest residential streets, also a main route for the ambulance which is based near my home.

My Faribault home sits along an arterial street, also a main route for the local ambulance service. Here the ambulance passes by a neighbor’s house. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

ON THE SAME DAY last week when I received my $1,362 bill for three months of health insurance coverage, I also got a letter about health care reform from my insurance carrier.

And I am not happy. Not happy at all.

In a box under “What you should know,” I read this:

Your health plan will continue to be offered with no change in benefits, but may have higher premiums because of increases in the cost and use of medical care.

Great. I already pay $454 a month for coverage and seldom see a doctor. And now I’ll likely spend more for no more.

I cannot afford higher premiums, especially for a plan with a $3,000 deductible and benefits that, to be frank, can be considered only of value should I need major medical care. Yes, I’ve shopped for other insurance but because I have a pre-existing condition—an artificial hip which will need replacing in 10 – 15 years—I couldn’t find a plan to cover that.

The letter informs me that my long-time plan is grandfathered in and thus not covered by health care reform. Never mind that; I’ll still be charged more for nothing new.

That was made quite clear to me again a few lines later:

Rates for most plans will increase. That’s because the overall use of health care services is increasing, and the cost for health care services, such as hospital and physician visits, also continues to rise.

Last year my family paid nearly $9,000 in health insurance premiums for three adults. I know already that the cost will be at least $10,000 this year as the 19-year-old’s premiums (under a different plan through the college he attends) have doubled. My husband and I also each saw increases in our premiums from 2012.

Craziness, I say. Pure craziness to spend that much money on health insurance premiums.

I plan to muddle through Mnsure, the new online marketplace for health insurance. I bet that will be a barrel of fun.

Did I mention that I dislike wading through health insurance info as much as I dislike doing taxes and completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid? I don’t like numbers. I don’t like forms. I don’t like sorting through complicated information.

Speaking of choices, I don’t understand why some Minnesotans will have up to five insurance companies offering coverage in their counties through Mnsure, while others will have only two available in their counties of residence. Explain that one. In my county of Rice, I will have three choices. I was expecting way more insurance company options, like maybe twenty. Competition tends to drive down prices. Right?

If I sound a little worked up, I am. I’m just tired of the ever-rising cost of health insurance and health care. How about you? Now it’s your turn. Go ahead. Tell me what you think of health care reform, health insurance premiums and the cost of health care.

FYI: Click here to read a special MPR report on Mnsure.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling