The uncertain future of Obamacare isn’t just wreaking havoc for insurers, hospitals and other companies in the health-care ecosystem.
It’s paralyzing the lives of millions of regular Americans, too.
These are people who have made major, hard-to-reverse life decisions contingent on the health-care system we have today — including a functioning individual insurance market and the subsidies to make those individual insurance plans affordable.
I spoke recently with about a dozen Americans from around the country who worry the rug is about to be pulled from under them. Some are old and some young; some quit jobs so they could care for family members; some retired early; others left corporate America to launch their own start-ups.
One thing they have in common: They believe politicians don’t appreciate how much anxiety the Obamacare-repeal debate is causing their families.
This includes Kathy Tomasic, age 57. Last summer Tomasic left her job with the county of San Diego — a job with health insurance — to care for her son, Alec. It’s a decision she says she never could have made without Obamacare.
Alec is something of a child prodigy; he enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley last fall at 15 to study physics. He also, however, has a rare autoimmune disorder called mastocytosis, which lands him in hospitals several times a year.
Back in San Diego, Alec’s 27-year-old brother, Nelson, helped care for Alec so that Mom could work. When Alec was accepted into college, the family decided it was time to let Nelson live his own life. Tomasic left her job and moved with Alec to Berkeley, which offered her a flexible, part-time position without benefits.
The key to this family decision: Tomasic could get insurance through the Affordable Care Act exchanges. She qualifies for subsidies that leave her paying about $300 in monthly premiums, a price that just barely fits into her family’s tight budget.
“People shouldn’t have to plan life choices around whether or not they’ll get health care, but that’s the way it is,” she said.
Now she’s panicking about what will happen if, as Republicans propose, insurers can jack up premiums for older enrollees. Would she be able to get a job that offers benefits at her age? If she did, could she hold onto it, given the frequency of Alec’s health crises?
Tomasic introduced me to her brother-in-law, Christopher Huntley, who says the law changed the course of his life, too.
Huntley used to be the director of internal audit for a gambling company, but was laid off in 2014 at 58.
“At that age, you’re kidding yourself if you think you’re driving your career,” says Huntley, who lives in Gurnee, Ill. “It’s not that easy to be jumping around in the job market. Companies see people my age as very expensive. They can get a couple of 30-year-olds for much less.”
He had some savings, and he decided he would retire early and buy insurance on the exchanges. His premiums have risen a lot since then, from about $350 per month to $881 today. Nonetheless, he’s grateful the law exists and is fearful of what may happen to his premiums under Trumpcare, which would allow insurers to charge people his age more.
Now 61 and out of the workforce for three years, he’s even more pessimistic that he’d be able to find a job that offers health benefits.
Then there are people like Kamil Choudhury.
Choudhury, 32, is on the younger end of the Obamacare enrollees I interviewed. He’s an entrepreneur developing a futures exchange for cloud computing called LevelCompute. He acknowledges he’s not exactly a sob story; he has an electrical-engineering degree from Princeton University, and he worked for a decade at major banks. But with a baby at home when he resigned from his banking job in 2015 — and a second child born this month, he says the ACA was crucial to his ability to launch a new company.
“I would never have decided to leave corporate America to work on this full time without the ACA as a backstop, for sure” said Choudhury, who lives in Los Angeles. “There’s no way my family could have taken the risk of a prolonged R&D cycle for a venture like this.”
Choudhury is taking the kind of risk that conservative politicians usually celebrate. But he’s also the kind of person who could be tethered to a big, traditional firm in the absence of a law Republicans have demonized.
These Americans are wary of losing Obamacare not because they’re lazy or selfish or spend too much money on iPhones. They’re wary because the law gave them the flexibility to make choices in their, and their family’s, best interest — and they’re bracing for what comes next.