By Kimberly Dawn Neumann
"What am I going to do? COBRA costs almost half my rent," I wept to a friend of mine. "I can't afford health insurance anymore, but we all know I'm one of those people who has to have it."
All my friends laugh, but they agree there is no way I can risk being uninsured. I have a tendency to live life at full tilt and with that kind of energy comes a higher propensity for bizarre ailments and injuries.
There was the time I split my chin open in yoga (jumping from chatturanga to crow's pose--I overshot) three days before a dear friend's wedding in which I was a bridesmaid (ten stitches--the bride was not pleased with me). Once, a full length mirror fell near me and shattered, with a shard slicing open my leg before a callback for a national commercial (ended up in the ER instead of the callback--15 stitches).
I broke my hand on a guy's face when I accidentally connected with him during a stage fight (major surgery with a rod inserted in my hand). Then there were the two knee surgeries (a function of years as a professional dancer). Oh, and I actually got swine flu. Seriously.
My hospital record is thick. I actually had a nurse comment once, "Oh, you've been here before." Yes, ma'am. A few times too many.
For years, I never had to worry about coverage. I was very fortunate to work as a professional dancer/singer/actress and I managed to qualify for very decent health insurance through the Actors Equity Association. But about six years ago, everything changed.
The First Time I Lost My Health Insurance
To begin, the health fund through my union started to suffer (read: go bankrupt), so they began upping the number of weeks a performer had to work in order to qualify for insurance benefits. It went from ten weeks per year to 12 weeks to qualify for six months of insurance, and 20-24 weeks to get a year (virtually impossible for most performers unless they are in a long-running Broadway show or national tour).
Though I had been blessed with consistent work, I lost my health insurance for the first time when I found myself undergoing my first major knee surgery five years ago. I needed about three more weeks of work in the yearly period to qualify. But oh, right ... I was on crutches!!! No one was going to hire me to perform in a show if I crutched my way in to an audition.
I appealed to the Union, asking them to freeze the weeks I had accrued until I was healthy again, but they pretty much ignored me. I lost all those qualifying weeks, because if you don't use them within a year, they take them away.
I went on COBRA for the first time. And holy what? It was like $650 per month. How on earth was I supposed to pay for that and a Manhattan apartment? I was in sticker shock.
But I paid, knowing that at any moment something horrible might happen (like the swine flu episode, for example ... I was really sick). For part of the year I managed to qualify for a government subsidy for artists, which cut my COBRA payment in half and made it almost doable. But as soon as that was done, I watched the money I had once thought would be a down payment on my own place someday dwindle, owing to the additional expense of health insurance.
Something Had to Give
After I recovered from my first knee surgery, I landed a Broadway show and during that run qualified for another six months of coverage through the Union. I was feeling good ... until I reinjured my knee in that show and had to have a second knee surgery. And after another long stint on crutches and rehab, I lost my insurance again.
Back to the COBRA payments, which were insult to injury ... literally. This time, they'd gone up to almost $750 per month, with a $500 yearly deductible. I kept paying, and kept watching my savings disappear. As my financial stress levels skyrocketed because I wasn't in a show anymore and didn't have coverage as a freelance writer, I began to panic. Something had to give.
I switched to "disaster insurance" through a freelancer's union type of program. But even that was $300 a month, with a $6,000 deductible. I felt like I couldn't even go to the doctor.
I called it my "I've been hit by a bus while rollerblading in NYC and I don't want my parents to go broke trying to cover my bills" insurance, because that was the only possible scenario when paying that deductible would be rational. I could no longer see my neurologist (migraines), my orthopedist (knees), my therapist (which I needed because of this insurance stress!), my chiropractor or even my regular gynecologist (I had to go on their "Healthy Woman" plan; they still ended up charging me $60 for lab fees because I didn't know to ask my doctor to send my lab work somewhere in my health plan's network).
With a $1,000+ deductible for pharmaceuticals, I had no choice but to recruit one of my best friends from Mexico as my "drug mule." When she would go home to visit family, I would have her bring me back a couple of Z-pacs in case I got a bronchial infection and some muscle relaxers for my migraine headaches. It was the only way I could afford it in case I got really sick.
My Quest for Other Options
I realized that this disaster insurance/drug mule plan wasn't healthy, either ... so I started looking for other options. I found that one of the gyms in New York City offers insurance if you teach a certain number of classes per week. So, though I hadn't taught in years, I immediately started teaching again ... a lot! But it took me a year to get enough permanent classes to qualify for their employee plan.
Even that insurance (for which I'm insanely grateful; I've been on the program for a few months now), still requires I deduct $120 to $240 per month from my paycheck depending on how many classes I teach a week, usually eight to ten. With that much physical activity, I am going to need the insurance because my body is breaking! It's an HMO, so I have to go to the doctors on their plan. And, of course, none of the doctors I've gone to for years seem to be "on" that insurance ... sigh.
How Health Insurance Is Stifling My Dreams
I've found myself turning down certain performing auditions because, if I got the job and had to stop teaching, I would lose my hard-earned health insurance at the gym. I feel like I am working for health insurance and stifling my dreams on the off-chance I end up with a sprained ankle or some other bizarre virus (or worse).
The only other viable option I've seen for getting health insurance is to marry into it. But since my love life has been less than stellar as of late, I guess it's all up to me ... or Obamacare.
Please, Mr. President. Please, Congress. Please, America.
I'm exhausted and broke from my efforts to get and pay for health insurance. I'm a hard worker. I'm not taking advantage of any system. But I don't work in corporate America. I'm an artist and a writer. And I'm struggling.
We need a national health care plan. It's time. Unless Mr. Right With the Awesome Medical Plan sweeps into my world (and if he's on his way, his GPS seems to be seriously messed up), it's just me ... and I need help.
Imagine what I could accomplish creatively if I didn't have to spend so much time just trying to stay insured?
The world could be my oyster, but right now I'm just trying to make sure I don't step on one and need more stitches.
Maybe you can relate--and hopefully you haven't even had as many mishaps as I have. What do you think we should do?
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