9.20.2012

How to find and obtain health insurance

In the dorms at the School of American Ballet, attempting to do a breathing treatment for my asthma. My suitemates, Jermel Johnson (now Principal Pennsylvania Ballet) and Andrew Scordato (now Corps New York City Ballet), decided to have some fun while I used my nebulizer.
When I first decided that I was going to create this blog, I made a list of more than 30 topics that I felt were important to touch upon. Of course, I have added more to that list over time. But from the start, I knew that I needed to write a blog about obtaining health insurance as a freelance dancer. I've put it off and put it off again, but for good reason. How could I write a blog about searching for health insurance if I had never done a search myself? Well, dear followers, the search is over. I applied for my own health insurance plan earlier this week and now that I have gained credibility in writing this post through experience, I am prepared to share what I have learned through the process.

Being diagnosed at the age of 4 with severe asthma really taught me the importance of having health insurance. I visited the hospital at least 5 times per year until I was about 17 years old for asthma related problems. When I left PNB, I felt extremely fortunate that I was offered 18 months of continuing health coverage as a part of a federally regulated program called COBRA. I was moving across the country the day after my duties had ended with PNB, working with a new company, commuting over an hour each way from the suburbs, and searching for a new place to live in a city that wasn't very familiar. I hardly had time to figure out how to obtain health coverage.

COBRA was a godsend. I still had coverage to pay for that earwax blockage that prevented me from hearing out of my left ear for five days only three weeks after moving (ewww...gross), which surprisingly screwed up my ability to balance while dancing. I struggled to pay the $521.70/month tab, but felt that I was very lucky to still have the option to take care of myself. COBRA only lasts for 18 months after you cease working for a company. As I approached month 16, I had to begin seriously looking for coverage that was affordable, allowed me to take care of my asthma and medications, and offered options for physical maintenance while avoiding completely breaking the bank. Now that I have figured things out, I am still kicking myself that I could have been saving hundreds (and I mean hundreds) of dollars a month.

Before one starts looking for an affordable health plan, they should first determine their needs. For me, I am asthmatic and require certain medications that need to be refilled nearly every month. I also want to feel that if I am ill, that I can go straight to a doctor. I don't want to question whether I should see a doctor. If I have to pay a great deal out of pocket, chances are that I will keep putting off an appointment until I am way to sick to work. Being a dancer, I also feel it is important to have an option for physical maintenance to keep my body in the best condition that I can. So, for me, an ideal plan has affordable prescription coverage, low co-pay with no/low deductibles, and "specialist" coverage for PT and chiropractic care. I also travel a lot, so it would be impractical for me to get an HMO plan, where you have to choose one main doctor that gives you referrals for anybody outside their services (these plans are usually cheaper). I need a PPO plan that allows me to go to any provider that accepts a specific health insurance company's plan (read here for more information about HMO vs PPO).

Where does one begin their search for health insurance? My partner (life partner) owns an organizing business (Shameless plug) and has become "Philadelphia's next top networker." In his many ventures to make friends, obtain clients, and learn what people in Philly are all about, he met an insurance broker. Since my partner doesn't have any health insurance at the moment, the broker told him he could help him out. My partner mentioned that I would soon need to find new coverage and the broker offered me some great advice. If you have recently left a company and are on COBRA and you like your current health plan, call your current provider. PNB offered insurance through Regence, which is a subsidiary of Blue Cross Blue Shield. BCBS is one of the largest providers in the country. Using this network, with the right plan, I have had easy access to most providers, even though I live across the country. This is extremely important for freelancers who spend a large amount of time away from their home-base. All one has to do is call the customer service number on their insurance card and ask to talk to a representative about switching over to an individual plan. A dancer could easily do this before expensive COBRA payments kick in. Just make sure that you don't have a lapse of coverage for more than 63 days. Law states that an insured person can not be denied health coverage if they have had coverage less than 63 days before applying (read here). This method of seeking insurance is the quickest way to gain and continue coverage.

What are you supposed to do if you have had a lapse of 63 days without coverage, are leaving your parent's insurance plan, or have never had your own insurance coverage? The first thing you can do is call major national providers like BCBS, Aetna, or any others on this list. This is going to require a lot of time, patience sitting on the phone, and self-comparing. If you do have access to an insurance broker, like I did, you may want to give them a call and get advice from them. Don't be afraid if you don't have access to a broker. There are many websites that act like insurance brokers. One site I found particularly useful was Ehealthinsurance. Beyond that, one can use finder.healthcare.gov, healthinsurance.org, or any of the useful sites that are listed in this great article about finding your own insurance. Be aware that coverage can change according to your state, age, and other conditional items. If you don't get your health insurance through one of these websites, you can at least use them as a tool to get a general comparison of rates.

If you feel that you need some advice or assistance in looking for the right insurance plan, among other things, there are three great resources that EVERY freelancer should know about. Fractured Atlas is an organization that helps support and service artists of all types, from organizations to freelance dancers. If you look around this website, you can find information that can help you find health insurance. One can also join the Freelancer's Union. This union is free to join and their mission is to "connect freelancers to group-rate benefits, resources, community, and political action to improve their lives – and their bottom lines." Lastly, a dancer that has already spent some time as a professional can contact Career Transitions for Dancers for advice on insurance and beyond. I am sure there are many more resources out there that I have missed. If any of my readers have more to share, please feel free to leave a comment with that information below.

In the end, I ended up going with the carrier that I had through my COBRA with PNB. I was able to switch my company plan to an individual plan that is comparable to my previous coverage and I will be saving nearly $300 a month to boot. If you want to see what my plan looks like  click here and find the PPO 30 Copay plan. My co-pays are generally low, there is no deductible in-network, and I can see a physical therapist or chiropractor if necessary. Even though it was a lot of work to figure all of this out, I am glad that I can continue protecting my body and my wallet. As dancers, it is important that we do everything that we can to maintain our instrument. Every dancer should have some form of health insurance. According to this 2006 article in the L.A. Times, "Classical ballet companies, weighing injury totals against the number of dancers who perform each year, report a 67% to 95% annual injury rate." If a dancer is on their own, they need to have an option to take care of themselves if, and when, injury occurs.

14 comments:

  1. COBRA is obviously the most convenient option if you have quit your job or have been fired. However, it can be very expensive and difficult to pay. A great alternative is to join your spouse's insurance plan if you're married or enrol in your parents' plan if you're under 26.

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  2. I agree about COBRA. That is why I used that option for 16 months. I just didnt have the time to do the research. I struggled month to month to pay the cost (more than $500/month). Spouse insurance plans and parent's plans are a great option. Unfortunately for me, my partner didn't have insurance during this time and I am 28 years old. But for other's that could be a great option. Thanks for sharing!

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  3. “Before one starts looking for an affordable health plan, they should first determine their needs.” – This statement is a great advice to follow. I’m impressed that you were able to identify what health services you specifically need and made a plan out of it. For those people who find themselves in a stump, go hire an insurance agent to ease the burden for you.

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    1. Thanks Elnora! My asthma diagnosis forced me to learn a lot about my health care really early on. I was also lucky enough to later work for a company that took great care of me. Instead of sitting back and letting them take care of me, I studied things closely. You learn a lot if you just pay attention to details. And yes, in the end, anybody that feels too overwhelmed by this process should seek a professional to help out. Thanks for reading!

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    2. That’s good to know, Barry! :) Sometimes, some things can serve as a tool to remind us of some of the things we’ve overlooked. I agree that for you to be able to make significant changes in your life, you should learn how to focus on the important things. Also, yes, health care is indeed one of the investments in life worthy of your consideration.

      Hershel Duffey

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    3. Im glad that this information has been informative, Hershel. It is true about focusing on the important things. COBRA gave me a chance to get my life settled without adding another wrench into the mix. Health care is important and necessary, in my opinion, and that is why it is such a hot-button topic in our current political climate.

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  4. I hope you’re doing well now, Barry. I’m so impressed with your knowledge about your insurance plan. It’s good that you went through a lot of research before you applied for your health insurance, so you will know the specifics like the cost and coverage.

    Keith Andrew

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  5. Thanks for the comment Keith! I am enjoying my time up in Anchorage dancing with Alaska Dance Theatre. As for the insurance, it took a long time for me to figure things out. I hope I can help some people out along the way.

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