Enrolling In Obamacare In Alaska Is Possible – A Computer Degree Helps

November 8, 2013

Despite extensive problems with healthcare.gov, a few dozen Alaskans have managed to enroll in a health plan on the marketplace, and Lara Imler is one of them.

Imler, a 37-year-old hair stylist in Anchorage, ditched her office job as an accountant in 2004. She says she loves making people feel better about themselves and is a lot happier cutting hair than she was sitting in front of a computer. But she does miss one big thing about her old job. “I had health insurance,” she says, “and it was wonderful.”

Even without health insurance, Imler spends a lot of time in doctors' offices. She has Hashimoto's disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects the thyroid. The treatments and blood work she needs are expensive -- but not as expensive as buying insurance in Alaska's individual market.

“Being self-employed, getting my premium at anything reasonable, wasn't happening,” she says. “I think my last quote was $1,200 a month for myself.”

Imler was determined to find something better on the new Affordable Care Act health exchange. She logged onto healthcare.gov a few days after it went live last month. She tried four times that day -- and four more times the first week -- but kept running into messages that the site was “unavailable.” So she decided to wait it out. On October 24, she logged back in and slowly started making her way through the process.

Imler's degree is in computer programming, and she's even built a few websites. She thinks that experience, helped her persevere through the trouble spots on healthcare.gov.

“You get to a point where you finally get to pick what health insurance you want and all the buttons have to be double clicked. If you don't know that or try that, it doesn't go anywhere. It just sits there,” says Imler. “This website is so not user friendly. You can't figure out what they're trying to get you to do unless you accidentally get there.”

About two hours after she started, she landed on a screen that told her she had successfully enrolled. She was pleasantly surprised by the price. Imler qualified for subsidies, and chose a mid-level plan that will cost her $110 a month.

“The website sucks -- I'm not going to lie,” she says, “but the idea that I might be able to afford health insurance is huge to me. It will be a huge burden off my family.”

The plan is a great deal for Imler. But for her insurance company, it's a different story. The claims from her chronic condition are likely to pile up quickly.

But at least some insurance companies are braced for people like Imler. Jeff Davis, president of Premera Alaska, says the company is prepared to lose money in 2014, maybe even a lot of money. In the long run, though, he hopes Premera will be able to attract more young, healthy people into the mix.

“The first wave will be people who know they need coverage, so that's a little scary,” Davis says. “So then, the question and the challenge becomes, how do we help inform others, particularly those who are subsidy eligible, that this is available to them and help them figure out how to get to it.”

Imler is still waiting for enrollment confirmation from her new insurance company. She's optimistic that will come soon. If it doesn't, she's willing to log back in to healthcare.gov to keep trying.

This story is part of a partnership that includes NPR, Alaska Public Radio Network, and Kaiser Health News.

Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communications organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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