Ask – you may already be eligible

Illustration by: Jasmine Mochizuki / Visual Editor
Illustration by: Jasmine Mochizuki / Visual Editor

As college students, we have better things to do than go around shopping online for health insurance.  In this technical age, we rely on web-based portals for quick information.

But when technology fails us, as has been the case with healthcare.gov, going directly to the source can be a better use of our time.

That’s why when it came time to renew membership for my Los Angeles County health coverage program, I felt more than a little annoyed. As a person who requires specific medication for an ongoing condition, it was imperative that I investigate my medical options in this Obamacare era.

A few days ago, I received a warning letter from Healthy Way L.A., a free program for low-income, uninsured adults run by the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, that the county program would soon change its name to Med-Cal (not to be confused with Medi-Cal, which is the statewide medical insurance program) in accordance with the recently enacted Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare.” In a few days, the letter said, I would be receiving a packet in the mail with information on how to register for the new program.

When I received the letter, I noticed the UCLA-Olive View Medical Center gastroenterology clinic I utilize for my medical needs was not listed among the list of providers. In fact, the hospital itself was not listed at all.

My medical insurance experience is quite unique. At 12 years old, I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis (UC), a chronic, autoimmune condition that affects the large intestine causing it to become irritated and inflamed. Persons with UC generally have a difficult time processing the nutrients in food. They become anemic, lose weight, suffer from severe stomach pains, and generally frequent the restroom often than most. If left untreated, UC can be deadly. But with the right medication and treatment, UC patients can lead normal lives and eat anything they want.

As a UC patient, I have experienced the full onslaught of symptoms. From day one of my diagnosis, I have relied on my parents’ health insurance to cover the cost of medication, procedures, and hospital stays — of which there have been many.

At 32, I have long been ineligible to use my parents’ health insurance, but I have always had some type of health insurance, whether it was through Tribune Company as a full-time reporter for the Glendale News-Press, or as a part-time bookseller at Barnes & Noble.

When I left those two positions at the latter half of 2010, I suddenly found myself without the ability to see a gastroenterologist or receive medication. I remained off medication for a full year until Fall 2011 when a major relapse landed me in the hospital for a week.

At the time, I believed hunting for affordable health care for myself was a daunting task. Where would I start? How would I pay for it all? What sorts of restrictions would I encounter? So I let it go without asking further questions or conducting additional research.

And my UC worsened with each passing week.

In retrospect, other than the $26,000 hospital bill I received after my 2011 hospital stay, I was not given much incentive to shop around for health insurance. At that time, restrictions on pre-existing conditions existed. And there was no marketplace like HealthCare.gov — you had to visit each health care provider’s website.

After I left the hospital, I was introduced to the county’s new Healthy Way L.A. program. The program allowed me to pay zero out of pocket for my week-long hospital stay and afforded me the privilege of being able to see a gastroenterologist and undergo necessary procedures at the hospital — all for free.

I have lived happily on Healthy Way L.A. since 2011; I was lucky to have discovered the program.

But the health care act and the subsequent package I received scared me, and I feared a repeat of what I had gone through in 2010. Besides, I have better things to do than shop around for health insurance, like studying for and passing my classes.

This time I had different questions. Would I be able to keep my current clinic? I do not want to start over with a new doctor who did not have my records. Would I be able to receive my necessary medication? The meds I take make the difference between living a productive life and one of sickness. Would I be able to undergo necessary medical procedures? As a UC patient, I have a higher risk of developing colon cancer. As such, I must undergo a colonoscopy once a year.

My solution to the conundrum was to go to the hospital and just ask — asking was something I failed to do before. First, I went to the hospital’s financial services department to renew my membership in Healthy Way L.A. Next, I went to the hospital’s Patient Service Center so they could answer my questions about the packet I received.

It turns out, I have to do nothing. On Jan. 1, 2014, Healthy Way L.A. will become Med-Cal. The services I utilize for my UC will remain unaffected. Thereafter, I should receive my new insurance cards in the mail. I would not have known this had I failed to visit the hospital to ask a few short questions.

And therein lies the problem.

The Patient Service Center representative I spoke to said not a lot of people come in to ask questions. Most of the time, she said, patients sign off on things without realizing the consequences. Not until they realize they have done something wrong do they visit the hospital in a panic looking for advice. At this juncture, she said, the best people can do is ask questions. My visit, she added, was welcome.

As a student, you have several options if you are no longer eligible to use your parents’ health insurance. Healthy Way L.A. is open to individuals 19 to 64 years of age, who make less than $1,274 or less a month for a family of one and are U.S. citizens, nationals, or legal permanent residents with five or more years of residency in Los Angeles County. Visit www.dhs.lacounty.gov/HWLA for more information and additional requirements.

In California, residents can utilize the Covered California website to shop for affordable health insurance.

If you have questions about the medical insurance sign-up maze, ask. Do not deny yourself the medical insurance you need because it may look complicated and time consuming. It may be easier than you think, and much healthier for you in the end.