01/06/2014 03:03 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Mohammed of Hackensack vs. the ACA Website

"I have no problem with folks saying, 'Obama cares.' I do care. If the other side wants to be the folks that don't care, that's fine with me." --President Barack Obama, responding to the Republicans' use of the term 'Obamacare,' August 2011

"When you have a system which is so complex, its main function is to enable insurance companies, drug companies and medical equipment suppliers to be making huge amounts of money off of the system. The more complex it is, the easier it is for them to do that . . . . In this whole health care debate, there's been very little discussion as to why it is that, in America, with 48 million people uninsured, we end up paying almost twice as much as do the people of any other country. But we can't ask that question because the insurance companies and the drug companies are too powerful." --Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT)

Mohammed, a 21-year-old pre-med student volunteering at a community center in Hackensack, New Jersey, was our last hope.

Since October 1, 2013, my then-63-year-old husband and I had spent hours and hours and hours, online and on the Affordable Care Act 800-number, trying simply to enroll for "Obamacare." We would both have preferred, much preferred, a public option, but we live in the era of Ted Cruz and Jim DeMint, as opposed to President Bernie Sanders. We would take what we could get. If we could ever be sure we'd got it.

We were told, at various times (usually in the wee hours, after handing the phone off one to the other, in exhaustion), over two long months, that we were enrolled, that we were not enrolled, that there were still glitches on the front end of the site, that there were glitches on the back end of the site and, finally, that there were glitches between the site and the insurance companies, etc., etc., etc.

With each change of "status," we assumed there had really been no change at all: we were not enrolled; the fat lady had not sung. Not until a check cleared and insurance cards appeared, we reasoned, could we relax. And were we ever right.

Just before Christmas, with more and more of my hair catching fire due to the president's stated enrollment deadlines, and the inability of personnel manning ACA phones all over the country (I spoke to charming, if gormless representatives from Kentucky to Texas to Idaho), I knew we had to sit down with a living, breathing person soonest, and finalize our applications.

That in and of itself took a little doing and more calls to the 800-Number. I have no earthly idea how citizens with less perseverance, or who are less savvy, less educated, and less tenacious than we have managed to enroll: I expect millions have not due to their inability to swim upstream, holding their breath (and their peace) for months on end. I, myself, began to look at enrollment--the process, itself -- in terms of a pregnancy. Fussing and fuming down the phone was not going to make any difference: the thing would happen, or not, given time and forbearance, so I was infallibly polite to every Chelsea, Kimberley, and Duane with whom we (interminably) spoke.

The first analog assistants I reached by phone in Bergen County were obviously not native speakers of English, but I soldiered on (deciding I could not face the language barrier with Koreans)... and was given the name of the very young man who eventually succeeded where both Dean and I had failed.

On the phone, Mohammed, himself, seemed as well a native speaker of another language, though I realize he'll bristle to read this. In fact, he speaks accented if flawless English, but he is also an avatar of America's new and burgeoning diversity: a devout Muslim, the third-generation grandson of Anglo-Indian immigrants, selflessly volunteering to assist two elderly Anglo-Americans (well, mostly: there is my Cherokee grandfather to consider) in the truly thankless task of logging on to a cranky, spavined web site, keying in, and keying in again and again (and then checking and re-checking and re-checking by phone) over two interminable face-to-face meetings, the data that was eventually accepted; the application that was eventually completed.

Our checks made out to Horizon Blue Cross/Blue Shield of New Jersey, the "Obamacare" arm of "The Blues" in our state, cleared on December 31, 2013, and the cards are in the mail. Yesterday, I saw my (same old, same old, wonderful) GP, Alicia Skarimbas, of Englewood, New Jersey... and my co-pay was $5.

From December of 2013 to January of 2014, due to allowed monthly tax credits, our premiums have been cut by some two-thirds, and our overall coverage and deductibles, though still high for us, have also both been dramatically reduced. Both of us had limped along for years with grandfathered individual policies the intricacies of which only a CPA could parse. Basically, I had catastrophic health coverage, period; and Dean had coverage undeserving of the name. For each medical "event" in any given year, his deductible was set at $10,000. So, if he had kidney stone surgery and glaucoma surgery in one year, his deductible for that year would have been $20,000.

No wonder the only bumper sticker on my husband's car reads: "I Want a Public Option!"

Mohammed was the sweetest, dearest, most patient and respectful young person either my husband or I have encountered in recent memory, and we know we are not the only members of our community he helped through this difficult, baffling, and needlessly maddening process.

The website should never have been designed this badly. Citizens already at the mercy of the Big Insurance and Big Pharma should never have been compelled to run such a gauntlet to acquire so-called affordable health care.

As a citizen also of the European Union, I know from firsthand experience what humane health care is, and we do not have it here, yet, nor do I expect it in my lifetime.

The year behind us has left Dean and me, and so many other Americans, questioning everything that happens in Washington DC. Everything that, again and again, fails to happen.


We have so few advocates for "The People," We The People, on the national stage. We listen to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren speak, and know they speak for us, as so few do nowadays, but their influence is so limited. They are voices in the wilderness.

... Which does not mean we discount or belittle them.

Mohammed is, as well, just one young man, sitting in a no-frills, chilly office in a faceless building in an economically depressed town in northern New Jersey. One man, with limited influence, and many calling upon him for help.

But, in our case, Mohammed succeeded where we, and many others on the ACA site and at their call centers, did not.

I suspect not everything has come easily or immediately for Mohammed. He, like I, may have come to view some endeavors as being much like difficult pregnancies, or determined, long-lived, grass-roots social movements, or massive, tectonic shifts in policy and opinion.

These things all take time, effort, patience, and resilience. And they take all hands on board.
But sometimes, just sometimes, in the 11th hour, due to determined collaborative effort, small miracles occur, one by one, as ours did, on Christmas Eve of 2013.

So, thank you, President Obama, and Mohammed of Hackensack. Thank you very much. It's a start!