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Despite controversy, enrollment for Obamacare is open

Danyelle Khmara Nov 9, 2017 1:00 AM

Local business owner Julie Simons is sick of the health care tug-of-war. She's a member of the new health care advocacy group Arizonans United for Health Care Coalition, which is working to inform people about healthcare issues, including how to enroll in the Affordable Care Act.

"We're promised life, liberty and the pursuit of justice, and all those things require health," Simons said. "I didn't put it on my calendar, March 26: breast cancer diagnosis."

Simons was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, but it wasn't the first of her health problems.

She opened her online skincare business, Skin Obsession, in 2007, producing, labeling and bottling homemade peels, scrubs, cleansers and more. She was also working as a research specialist at the University of Arizona at the time, and found out she had an adrenal tumor.

Removing it required major surgery, so she had to take medical leave from her job. Luckily, her business was taking off. When she recovered, she took it on full time and was able to support herself and her daughter Amber, who was 15 at the time.

When her insurance through the university ended, she was shocked to find out she now had a pre-existing condition, so her insurance would be $1,250 a month, with a deductible around $4,000.

"That was fun for a new business," she says, rolling her eyes.

She tried to get into a high-risk pool, which before the ACA was the only option for many people with a pre-existing condition who'd been priced out of the insurance market. Simons says "the list was a mile long."

After the ACA passed, she found a plan that cost her $250 a month, with a $4,000 deductible. But her troubles weren't over. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she needed six rounds of chemotherapy, and each had a $24,000 price tag.

"When you're looking at a bill for a single treatment of cancer, you happily write that $4,000 check," she said.

Simons recently went to the ACA website to look for a plan for herself and five of her seven employees. But she found navigating the website challenging. Simons runs an online business across five platforms, so she's computer literate.

The newly formed Health Care Coalition helps guide people to those organization that can help them understand what's available to them through the ACA.

The group's senior organizer, Alma Hernandez, says they're "making sure people know the ACA hasn't gone away."

With all the bills to change or repeal the ACA, aka Obamacare, that were unsuccessfully pushed by Republican lawmakers this year, it's almost a surprise that the ACA is still there and, for the most part, intact.

But the Trump administration has worked to make it more difficult to buy insurance on the online exchanges that serve people who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but who can't get insurance through an employer. One big change: The annual enrollment period has been shortened from three months to six weeks, as well as cutting the advertising budget for the exchanges from $100 to $10 million, as well as cutting in-person assistance by 40 percent.

This year's enrollment period is from Nov. 1 to Dec. 15.

The Health Care Coalition is non-partisan, "bringing awareness and holding representatives accountable," Hernandez says. The group has been critical of Rep. Martha McSally for voting to repeal the ACA without have something the group considers adequate to replace it.

McSally has been a frequent critic of the ACA, and voted in favor of the American Health Care Act, the GOP replacement plan that passed the House of Representatives but stalled in the Senate earlier this year. But she did vote in favor of the Upton amendment in the legislation, which added $8 billion for help people with pre-existing conditions get insurance through high-risk plans. Critics complained at the time that $8 billion would be insufficient to fund healthcare coverage for people with preexisting conditions, with the Center for American Progress estimating that it would actually cost $327 billion.

Simons is grateful for the ACA. It saved her when she needed it. But it hasn't always been the best option for her business. Last year, she bought her insurance directly through the insurance agency United Healthcare and paid almost $3,000 a month for herself and five employees.

She found the ACA website hard to navigate, so she called United to see what they could offer. When she got off the phone, she had signed off on a plan.

"At this point, I think people are afraid to cough and get labeled with a pre-existing condition," she says. "There goes your retirement. There goes your kid's college. There goes your home."

The Health Care Coalition is directing people to the Cover Arizona website to find local assistance on buying health insurance. A search of 25 miles within one local zip code revealed 22 organizations that are helping, though many require an appointment a week in advance.

To search for somewhere near you, go to coveraz.org/connector. For more information on the Health Care Coalition go to arizonansunitedforhealthcare.org or facebook.com/AZforHealthCare.

"Every single person in this country deserves health care," Simons said. "If you guys don't want the ACA, fine. Give us what Trump promised us then."