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A Health Reporter's Struggle to Get Health Insurance

A Health Reporter's Struggle to Get Health Insurance

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After a 30-year career writing about health, Susan Brinks found herself in the throes of her own medical story.

She has been a freelancer since being laid off from the Los Angeles Times in October 2008, and her COBRA -- the post-employment extension of her health insurance -- runs out on July 20.

"It was very stressful finding insurance," she writes in an email. "It's crazy. It's awful. For a few weeks, until we looked into Vermont's [health insurance] program, I faced the prospect of being uninsured -- or paying an arm and a leg for lousy insurance -- after 30 years of writing about the problem of uninsured Americans."

What happens when journalists go uninsured? For the recently unemployed, freelancers and contractors, what medical insurance options exist?

This week we find out how Brink got coverage and hear from Zoe Corneli, whose Health Journalism Fellowship project focused on young professionals who forgo health insurance. "I had personally been uninsured for several years while working as a freelance journalist and experienced a lot of similar issues to the people I was interviewing," Corneli writes in an email.

This week's career listings are at the end of this post, where you will find them every Friday. If you have ideas for future posts, you can log in and let me know. Keep up with Career GPS by signing up for weekly newsletters or via RSS.

Freelancers Union, which offers group dental, life and disability policies to independent workers, and health insurance in New York, conducted an online survey of 3,000 independent workers in 2009 [PDF]. It found that in the prior year 18 percent of respondents gave up their health insurance, while 35 percent switched to plans with fewer benefits because of high premiums. Brett Levy is one of the founders of The Journalism Shop, a consortium of former Los Angeles Times reporters pooling their resources to sell their work as freelancers. He did an informal survey of former Times reporters last year. "I think the vast majority had health insurance through their spouse, COBRA or the Times," he says in an email. "The latter group applies only to those old enough to receive lifetime health care presuming it survives the bankruptcy process."

For now, here is Brink's story as she writes it in email, edited for length:

"[While] on COBRA, I decided to take care of preventive health measures. I had a colonoscopy, a mammogram and I went to a dermatologist for a skin check. If anything strange turned up in the preventive tests, I would have rendered myself uninsurable. I began thinking that maybe it's not a good idea to take preventive steps medically if you're about to search for individual health insurance. If you don't go to the doctor, you don't leave a medical trail of records. You can honestly answer 'no' to all the questions about health.

We're temporarily staying in Illinois because of family issues. But my permanent residence is in Vermont. I first applied for private insurance in Illinois. To my shock, I was turned down because of high cholesterol. I was just stunned to be rejected for individual insurance in Illinois. I'm a healthy person. I don't smoke, I eat smartly and I exercise. Go figure!

I applied for health insurance in Vermont, since I'm still a resident there. Thanks to the former Governor Howard Dean, Vermont has a program so that everyone can get insurance. I didn't have to supply any health information, and I'm covered. I pay the full price of about $425 a month, but the insurance is good. I'm 62 ½. (Like a small child, I count the half years, as I wait for Medicare eligibility.) Vermont will get me through to Medicare. But what if I lived elsewhere? I'd get some sort of health insurance, but it would be something like this: a high monthly premium with a very high deductible.

So my nugget of wisdom: Move to Vermont. No one is uninsurable, the insurance plans actually cover health care, and the state has options for people who can't afford it. Or think about postponing preventive health care until AFTER you have scored a health insurance policy, not while you're looking. That last bit of advice runs counter to everything I've written about health care over 30 years.

I'm glad health reform passed. It's a start, but it won't help me soon enough. If a public option had been passed, then the whole country would have something like the Vermont plan. There will be a provision in the national law that will allow people older than 55 to buy into Medicare earlier than 65, but again, not soon enough to help me.

I've often thought that employer-based health insurance traps workers in jobs. They can't leave to try freelancing, to try something on their own, without risking being uninsured. They stick to the daily grind in order to have health insurance. Now, I'm in a situation where I have to live in Vermont. It's a beautiful trap, but my partner and I know we can't move until I'm 65. But with Medicare will come freedom. We can move if we want to. I wish everyone in this country could be free to work where they want, to live where they want. I have new insurance beginning on Aug. 1, so I have to remain healthy for 11 days in July. Wish me luck."

"People can find themselves in a really tough situation: pay for health insurance they can't afford, or take the risk of incurring a much bigger financial burden if they have a serious accident or illness. In that situation, there's no easy answer," explains Zoe Corneli. "High-deductible plans can protect you from going bankrupt over a broken leg, but they don't help with getting regular check-ups."

In California, Corneli suggests free gynecological exams, STI testing and birth control for low-income patients at Planned Parenthood's clinics. The Healthy San Francisco program also offers comprehensive health coverage, not to  be confused with insurance. When you apply for insurance, Corneli cautions against withholding information about pre-existing conditions. "The insurance company has the right to investigate your medical history, and if they discover a discrepancy, they can retroactively cancel your plan and hold you liable for all past health care costs," she writes in an email.

Sara Horowitz, founder and executive director of Freelancers Union, offers this advice by email: "Try to keep uninterrupted insurance coverage, since gaps without insurance can sometimes lead to pre-existing conditions exclusions. I'd also encourage people to become as informed a consumer as possible. Getting involved in decisions we might not even be aware are being made -- like which lab a simple test is being done at -- can make a big difference to your costs. And if anyone is equipped to ask the right questions, it should be the journalists!"

Job Opportunities

As promised, here are job listings you might be interested in. This week, we've found opportunities in marketing, multimedia, radio and a paid internship: 

Sr. Marketing/Communication Specialist Public Health Preparedness, National Association of County and City Health Officials
Location: Washington, D.C.
Status: Full Time
Medium: Marketing

Social Media and Marketing Communications Professional, The Cadmus Group, Inc (environmental and health consults)
Location: Arlington, Virginia
Status: Full Time
Medium: Marketing

Envinronmental/Business Reporter, East Oregonian Publishing Co. (via
Location: Astoria, Oregon
Status: Full Time
Medium: Online, Radio

Business Reporter (includes health care coverage), The Register-Guard (via
Location: Eugene, Oregon
Status: Full Time
Medium: Newspaper

Web Health Editorial Intern, U.S.News & World Report (via
Location: Washington, D.C.
Status: Temporary (Paid)
Medium: Online

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