Whatever Congress does with the health care law in Washington, it will reshape the lives of millions of Americans. These four Georgians are waiting — some with high anxiety — to see what will happen to them.
Will they lose health care coverage altogether? Will something new and better come out of Washington’s heated debate?
Two years ago, they spoke with AJC reporters about obtaining policies through the Obamacare insurance exchange. Now they speak again, with the benefit of experience, about what repeal of the law or changes to it can mean for the state.
And, above all, how important it will be for Congress and President Trump to get it right.
‘I know I’m covered’
Occupation: Self-employed sign designer
If the Trump administration takes away Obamacare without a robust replacement, Nathan Tavel likely would probably just go without insurance. “I don’t think I’d be able to afford it,” Tavel said. “I’d be left out.”
Tavel wears a beard, rides a bike and uses his arts training to paint kitsch urban shop signs for businesses like Atlanta Beltline eateries. It’s a stereotypical urban millennial lifestyle, and he loves it. But it doesn’t pay much, so his low-cost health insurance from the Obamacare marketplace makes it all work.
“Plenty of times I’m working on ladders, and I know if I fall off and break a bone I’m able to fix it, still work and not have a lot of bills,” Tavel said. “I know I’m covered and not worried about it.”
True, his monthly premium jumped from $15 two years ago to $77 now. But that’s in large part because he makes more money now, he said, maybe $20,000 a year. He can afford the increase.
He knows he might be able to get employee health insurance if he shut down his business and joined a big design firm. But “I think that would sort of kill my day-to-day happiness,” he said.
If it all goes away, he will do his best to find a new plan that works for him before giving up. And really, in spite of the pronouncements against Obamacare, he has a hard time believing Congress would simply yank insurance for so many without a replacement that’s pretty similar.
“It’s really a joke what’s being said,” he said.
‘Hands off my insurance’
Occupation: Retired from the liquor industry
Ted Souris will be thrilled to see the Obamacare exchange vanish. Even though it provides his own health insurance.
“It’s a scam,” said the retiree.
His Obamacare insurance policy is satisfactory, Souris said, and it enabled him to retire early. The problem is, he doesn’t believe that the government should mandate or provide health care. “The government is there to provide law and order,” he said.
Moreover, he thinks Obamacare is part of a Democratic party plan to make voters dependent on left-leaning policies and politicians. He won’t be drawn in.
Souris’ premiums have actually declined since he joined, from perhaps $140 a month, to about $120 a month now with Blue Cross Blue Shield now. (His earlier policy was with Humana, but the company did not renew his policy and has shrunk its involvement in the program in Georgia.) On the other hand, his deductible went up from about $3,200 to $3,600. He opted for coverage with modest premiums but a very high deductible, so he would pay out of pocket for most of his care but have insurance for major illness or injury. And he’s taken advantage of the Obamacare mandate that he be allowed free checkups and periodic colonoscopies.
“I’m happy that I’ve got some peace of mind,” Souris said. “I can’t complain about the monthly premium at all. I know if something happens once that deductible is met, I would have substantial coverage.”
If it goes away? Soon, he’ll qualify for Medicare.
But until then, “I’d get off my [butt] and go back to work so I could afford it,” Souris said. “I don’t want them to come up with a replacement. I want the government to get their hands off my health insurance.”
‘You’ll do a lot of damage’
Occupation: Gym owner
The fast action in Washington to repeal the Affordable Care Act has Bruce Davenport concerned. If they want to change it, fine, he says; that could even help. But he thinks they should take the time to do it right.
“There’s nothing wrong with having some tweaks,” Davenport said. “I just don’t believe in taking it away. You’ll do a lot of damage. Millions of people are depending on that insurance.”
Davenport says Obamacare is common among his friends and colleagues, particularly other small-business people, like his barber. He wouldn’t have health insurance at all if not for the law, he says.
That was doubly true last year when his business took a hit and he had less money. Regular insurance would simply have been unaffordable, but with Obamacare, the tax subsidy increased to keep the premiums affordable for him. His monthly premium went all the way down to $45, he said, a decrease of about half.
“You have so many situations coming up that you have to do as a start-up,” he said, “insurance is something you couldn’t afford if wasn’t for the Affordable Care Act.”
Like several of the people the AJC talked to, Davenport didn’t need anything major from the insurance, but he did plan on taking advantage of the free checkups, because why not?
That’s the value he sees in it for the country, too: Catching health problems when they’re small, rather than waiting until a seriously ill person walks into an emergency room. The cost to treat them is far greater, and meanwhile the economy loses someone who could be contributing, producing and spending.
“You’re looking at people who cannot pay their bills,” Davenport said. “If they can’t pay it, then there goes another increase on the debt that the hospital is going to have, or the doctors are going to have. It’s a loss for everybody.”
From Obamacare to Medicare
Occupation: Retired from bank operations
In the brief time she was on Obamacare, Valerie Dalton made a costly discovery.
Dalton retired from her 30-year bank job, which had health benefits, and bought into an Obamacare plan for less than a year. Then she turned 65 and went on Medicare.
During that time, however, Dalton had to pull money out of her 401(k) to help herself and her daughter’s family through a rough patch. What she didn’t realize was that withdrawal from her retirement fund would show up as income on her tax return.
Obamacare makes insurance affordable with a tax credit. That means people who earn more pay more. Suddenly, Dalton was counted as someone who earned more and owed more for her health insurance.
Her Obamacare tax credit suddenly disappeared, costing her hundreds if not thousands of dollars. That’s in addition to the reduction in her regular IRS income tax refund; it came in at about $9,000 less than she expected. She’s still feeling the ripple effects in her weekly budget.
“My credit card debt is out of this world,” Dalton said.
She’s still glad she had the insurance when she needed it. She used it for mammograms and for watching her cholesterol, a key to managing her high blood pressure.
She’s disappointed that Congress could be moving ahead with a repeal without having a replacement.
Moreover, President Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of health and human services, Georgia Congressman Tom Price, is now refusing to say whether Medicare should keep its current level of funding.
“What are people going to do?” Dalton said of her new safety net. “What’s the regular people going to do? What kind of plan do you have in place to make us feel better?”
Actually, she tries not to think about it. “It’s not like I have any great hopes,” she said.