Issue 38 Feature Lifestyle

10 Years And Still Looking For Decent Health Insurance

A writer discovers the “hell” in health care by Neal Pollack

November 22, 2016

One day back in 2006, my toddler son put a rock up his nose. It was a small rock, and a small nose, and a short trip to the emergency room, where a tall, goofy doctor sucked out the rock with a hose while Elijah screamed like he was dying. But for me, the real pain came later. I was self-employed, and my wife taught college as an adjunct, so we had to pay for health insurance out of our own pocket. Because the insurance company decided my boy’s extraction was “surgery,” and we each had our own surgery deductible, it ended up costing us $600—which was a lot. Not long after, I wrote an article for the first issue of GOOD lamenting how health care for the average middle-class family was a luxury, not a right. 

But a year later, I actually hit the luxury jackpot. My memoir Alternadad tapped into a minor zeitgeist about “hipster parenting,” and also told a universal story about becoming a first-time father. The success of the book led to blogs and articles, then to a film option with a major movie studio, where they paid me to write a screenplay. Not long after, I landed a sitcom deal, also based on Alternadad, which qualified me for membership to the Writers Guild of America. The union made sure I had basically free health care. The cost was $600 for the entire year to cover my little family. What I was earning in television money was unprecedented—particularly when compared to what I was used to as an author—but in Hollywood terms, my income was comparatively tiny. The union shaved less than two percent off of what I earned, plus quarterly dues. Those union dues were entered into a collective pool, which also included the WGA fees of mega-successful scribes like Aaron Sorkin, Shonda Rhimes, and Seth MacFarlane, among many others. Matthew Weiner indirectly paid for my wife’s thyroid treatment and my sports-medicine rehab. It was screenwriter socialism. This health insurance was the gold standard.

Health care for the average middle-class family was a luxury, not a right.

Then the Great Recession hit. Almost simultaneously, so did an epic Hollywood writers’ strike. For about three months, thousands of industry pros stood together in solidarity to secure better deals for digital revenue. It seemed like almost overnight, my film opportunity vanished and my sitcom deal tanked. After several brutal rounds with TV executives and agents, my manager quit. My lifelong dreams of entertainment-industry success evaporated like so much Southern California Kool-Aid. 

When the Hollywood money went away, so did my sweet health care. We decided to move back to Texas, where we could buy a mediocre health plan through our Costco membership for about $350 a month. And that’s how we came to get our health insurance through a superstore, along with our tires, our contact lenses, a hot dog, and a 12-pack of canned albacore. 

When the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, I was hopeful that some equity would leach into the system. After our Costco insurance ended a few years later, we signed up for a plan through this new health insurance exchange. Our ACA plan cost north of $650 a month, which was ruinous and terrible, especially because my income had crashed again. So we applied for a subsidy. But then my income went up suddenly, so I applied to end the subsidy. Then the Obamacare bureaucracy misinterpreted my emails. They accidentally split my family in two, sending us two bills for the exact same coverage, threatening to call in debt collectors if we didn’t pay thousands of dollars for a policy we weren’t using. I spent several hours a week trying to sort out the mess, screaming into the phone with the kind of vitriol usually reserved for Time Warner Cable.

I spent several hours a week ... screaming into the phone with the kind of vitriol usually reserved for Time Warner Cable.

Now we have a different policy, with a different insurance company, with a subsidy secured by a broker we found on Facebook. We don’t pay this broker—apparently the insurance companies give him a fee for finding new customers—but now when the government hassles us about some missing subsidy paperwork, he takes care of it. 

As far as I can tell, the biggest difference in health care from 10 years ago is the government subsidies, which are good. But the costs associated with care are still too high, and now there’s an intractable layer of government bureaucracy on top of everything. I can’t really see a way out of this situation—even repealing the ACA, as Trump has said he’d like to do, won’t leave me with an alternative. Unless I sell another screenplay. 

Illustration by Ivana Arellanes

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10 Years And Still Looking For Decent Health Insurance A writer discovers the “hell” in health care