Some Marylanders deserve apology for insurance stress

Brown misses chance to assuage worries about health care

  • Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown testifies to the House Health and Government Committee about Maryland's health exchange.
Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown testifies to the House Health and Government… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
January 16, 2014|Dan Rodricks

At Tuesday's legislative hearing in Annapolis, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, point man on Obamacare in Maryland, refused to say he was sorry for the disastrous and embarrassing launch of the state's health insurance website.

Bad move.

I can understand why Brown might have demurred. It was a Republican lawmaker who pushed him for an apology, and that's pretty annoying.

The GOP long opposed national health insurance and a single-payer system. Republicans in Congress did everything possible to derail the Affordable Care Act. Having lost that fight on Capitol Hill and at the Supreme Court, they shut down the federal government in an attempt — one of 40-plus — to repeal it. Republican governors around the country have refused to collaborate on the implementation of the new law.

So if you are among the many who think all Americans deserve affordable health care, when you hear some Republican express urgent concern about the failings of the Obamacare rollout — that their constituents aren't getting the coverage the law promised — the hypocrisy goes right to your spine.

If I'm Brown, sitting there in a hearing room in front of cameras, I'd have been pretty ticked that a Republican asked me to apologize for the failings of the state's online insurance exchange.

But, of course, it should not have come to that.

Brown should have issued a pre-emptive apology.

"I want to say I'm sorry" should have been the first words out of his mouth, particularly if he wants to succeed Martin O'Malley as governor.

Instead, Brown said this: "An apology would amount to very little for those Marylanders who are struggling."

Strictly speaking, he's right.

Politically speaking, he's wrong.

If not for Joshua Sharfstein, the mild-mannered health secretary, the many frustrated people in the market for insurance would not have heard anything in the way of an apology from the O'Malley administration.

She might not want it, but I think Sharon Filicko deserves one.

And it should go something like this: "We're sorry that, while you were being treated for cancer, you had to worry about whether your health insurance policy would continue into 2014. We're really sorry that, instead of being able to nail down a new policy through your state's health insurance exchange, you had to buy expensive insurance and skip a medical treatment that's part of your recovery."

Back story: Sharon Filicko and her husband, Dave, live in Bel Air. (Dave is a former employee of The Baltimore Sun; he worked in the advertising department until about seven years ago.)

In the summer of 2012, Sharon was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, the cancer of blood plasma cells in bone marrow. Sharon had health insurance through Aetna Inc. and she got the care she needed, including a bone marrow transplant in April 2013.

In August, Aetna canceled its plan to sell individual policies through the brave new world of Maryland's health insurance exchange, claiming that limitations on what it could charge customers would not allow it to cover costs.

When Sharon learned of this, she was concerned, but figured she and her husband would be able to find new insurance through the Maryland exchange, starting Oct 1.

What they found sounds like madness.

"The first thing I discovered was, you can't register on the state website with an iPad," she says.

When she tried registering online with a computer, Sharon got error messages. The site was down so much that she called for help; each time, she says, she waited about an hour to speak to someone. At one point, her name ended up on three separate online accounts.

She faxed 13 pages of documents to the exchange in order to verify her age and income, but mistakes were made in the data entry.

All of this was time-consuming. It got to be December and Sharon still didn't have insurance lined up for the new year. At one point she was told she qualified for a federal insurance subsidy; at another point she was denied it.

"On Dec. 27, the health-care advocate who was trying to help me said, 'Your account is like a maze, I can't make heads or tails of it.' "

Sharon was on the verge of tears a couple of times, and understandably worried.

She still needs expensive medicine — one for the treatment of her cancer, another for her bones.

So rather than take further chances with the health insurance exchange, Sharon purchased a BlueCross BlueShield policy that will cost $907 a month, starting Feb. 1. She has no insurance for January. Sharon decided to skip this month's treatment for her bones because of its cost: $650.

Good news: She's in remission and, come spring, she turns 65 and qualifies for Medicare, the long-established federal health insurance system that, of course, could have been expanded to cover everyone who pays into it, sparing us glitches and worries and struggles — and the need for apologies.

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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