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Mixed Messages On Cancelled Health Plans Leave Consumers Confused


This week, millions of Americans in the private insurance market are scratching their heads, trying to figure out where they stand. Last week, President Obama reversed course and said insurance companies could continue to sell policies that don't comply with the Affordable Care Act for another year.

NPR's John Ydstie talked to several people whose policies were canceled, but now could be reinstated.

JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: Jeremy Squire is a 37-year-old environmental engineer in Irvine, Calif. He got a letter more than a month ago from Anthem Blue Cross, telling him his health insurance would be discontinued at the end of the year. Squire went online, and found a comparable plan for him and his wife would cost $550 a month, more than twice the cost of his old plan. So he was pleased with the president's announcement.

JEREMY SQUIRE: If I can, I will try to keep my old plan.

YDSTIE: But Squire soon found out it wasn't likely to be straightforward.

SQUIRE: When I called Anthem Blue Cross, their introductory message says: If you're calling about the president's announcement, we have no new information for you.


YDSTIE: And Squire is not alone.

STACY SHERMAN: My name is Stacy Sherman. I am from Grand Point, Mich., which is a suburb of Flint.

YDSTIE: Sherman is a 27-year-old graduate student in liberal studies at the University of Michigan, Flint. She had a Blue Cross-Blue Shield policy that she liked, that cost her just $64 a month. It will be discontinued in another month because it doesn't meet ACA requirements, including not providing maternity care.

SHERMAN: I have spoken with Blue Cross and at this point, they don't know what they're doing. They said they actually told me not to sign up for anything for a week and wait for them to decide if they were going to offer my old plan.

YDSTIE: Sherman is especially frustrated because she would likely qualify for free health insurance under Medicaid, but Michigan delayed until April its Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. The catch-22 is that she doesn't make enough money to get subsidies on the ACA exchange because it was premised on the idea that Medicaid would be expanded simultaneously.

SHERMAN: And they say, oh, you don't make enough money for us to help you. And I'm just confused because I thought it was specifically supposed to help me so I'm slipping through the cracks and there is nothing specifically for me.

YDSTIE: Tim Blanchard(ph), a law student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville liked the $46 a month Humana policy he had, too. It's being discontinued and he doesn't know yet whether he'll be able to get it back.

TIM BLANCHARD: I certainly think that if the old policy was available at anything close to the price that I'm currently paying, I would stick with it in a heartbeat.

YDSTIE: Blanchard knows he got the old policy cheaply because he's young and healthy. But he thinks that's fair.

BLANCHARD: Me having to pay for, you know, people who don't take care of themselves, people who are old, people who are sick, I mean, that's really a hidden tax.

YDSTIE: But not everybody wants their old policy back.

KATIE GARCIA: My name is Katie Garcia. I'm from Lincoln, Nebraska. I am a pediatric dentist.

YDSTIE: Garcia, who's 32 years old and single, also had an inexpensive policy from Blue Cross/Blue Shield. It cost her just $40 a month. But she doesn't want it back. That's because she read some of the policy's fine print after seeing a newspaper article the criticized some inexpensive insurance policies.

GARCIA: The kind of policy that I currently have should no longer be available. When I went back and read all the fine print, for instance, if I went to the ER and it was anything other than an accident, it wouldn't be covered. So as far as I can tell, that means if I landed in the ER at midnight with appendicitis, that would be all out-of-pocket for me.

YDSTIE: Garcia says she doesn't even think the policy is worth $40 a month.

GARCIA: I'm leaning toward the idea that I should either drop insurance altogether for awhile and take the fine or just hop onto Obamacare.

YDSTIE: Of course, hopping on Obamacare's been a big challenge for many Americans. Most of these individual policyholders expressed frustration with the president for saying they could keep their coverage when it turned out they couldn't, but several said given the limits of their coverage, they suspected they'd have to give up their policies.

Jeremy Squire sums it up this way.

JEREMY SQUIRE: Where do we go from here, that's a separate question. I think we've got a mess and I'm not really sure how to deal with it.

YDSTIE: John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ydstie has covered the economy, Wall Street, and the Federal Reserve at NPR for nearly three decades. Over the years, NPR has also employed Ydstie's reporting skills to cover major stories like the aftermath of Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. He was a lead reporter in NPR's coverage of the global financial crisis and the Great Recession, as well as the network's coverage of President Trump's economic policies. Ydstie has also been a guest host on the NPR news programs Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. Ydstie stepped back from full-time reporting in late 2018, but plans to continue to contribute to NPR through part-time assignments and work on special projects.