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Op-Ed

My struggle to get health insurance was more irritating than my full-body rash

A few weeks ago, with very little warning, my skin burst into a mysterious full-body rash. Also, I quit my job.

My two new conditions — persistent, inexplicable hives and unemployment — did not seem to be related, but they fit together like a hand in glove. What better time to suffer from a mysterious medical condition than when you have nothing better to do than search Google? I consulted the available literature: WebMD (see a doctor); Mayo Clinic (see a doctor); a passionate, 2,000 post message-board thread filled with fellow sufferers (avoid chemtrails). I decided to see a doctor.

So far as I knew, I was insured: I'd signed up online for COBRA, the government program that allows the recently jobless to remain temporarily on their former employers' health plan. For around $400 a month, I could see any doctor in the United Healthcare Choice network.

Everything's going to be fine, I told myself.

My confidence was misplaced. When I arrived at the doctor's office, the receptionist informed me that I wasn't enrolled in the UHC system. Scratching my arm in the casual manner I had developed to communicate to the public that I was cool and sexy and not covered in red, weeping hives, I thanked her and called UHC. The woman I spoke with on the phone took my information and put me on hold. She returned shortly after with the verdict: The receptionist was right.

Somehow, the UHC website had not been able to register my application. “Can't I just enroll over the phone?” I asked. No: only via mail or the Internet. She suggested I try again online. I returned to the website and clicked through the steps again. The final page instructed me to hit “enroll.” There was no “enroll” button. There was only a “next” button, which took me back to the start. Perhaps this was my problem.

Since the website still didn't work, I was told to email cobra_kyoperations@uhc.com, an address that could only have sounded more bogus if it had ended in @aol.com. “I'm having trouble enrolling,” I wrote. By the time I sent off that plaintive missive it was late, so I took 40 or 50 Benadryl and went to sleep.

I hadn't heard back by the following afternoon, so I called again. I was still not in the system. My new help-line friend was able to find my email, at least — but apparently it wasn't good enough. If I wanted to enroll — which I did — I would need to “affirmatively express” that desire in a new email. She gave me a case number and said she would expedite it. Once I sent the email, it would take two or three business days to process. I would then need to pay upfront for the first month of coverage. Another one or two business days later, I would officially have insurance again.

At this point my skin had been itching for weeks. I felt less like a person and more like a plot device in a bad experimental novel, something bleak and Austrian: My body was revolting against itself; I was allergic to existence. My girlfriend was giving me the look nurses reserve for children in burn wards.

Worse, I'd started a new freelance job that required me to go into an office. My only hope was that my new co-workers were assuming my constant scratching was the result of something glamorous, like meth addiction.

I tried to remind myself that I was lucky, at least by American standards. COBRA — celebrating its 30th anniversary next year — theoretically meant I wasn't in danger of running up absurd medical bills.

But COBRA works only as well as insurance companies do, and UHC wasn't working for me at all. Its website was just as dysfunctional as HealthCare.gov in its notoriously disastrous first month. So much for the wondrous private sector.

At the end of the week (a speedy two days since my phone call) I got an email from UHC: “You have received a secure message.” Did it contain personal medical details? To open it, I would need to download an HTML file, sign up for a system run by Cisco and fill out a username, password, passphrase and three security questions. It was an extensive and no doubt expensive security procedure protecting the following message:

This email is confirmation that we have completed your Cobra Enrollment for Medical and Dental coverage.

It was like getting delivered a postcard inside a suitcase handcuffed to the wrist of an armed guard. Nevertheless, it was good news. I used a credit card to make my initial payment and called again to make sure it had gone through. The help-line representative told me she wasn't able to check. I made a next-day appointment, anyway.

The dermatologist was unimpressed. “It looks like it's getting better.” He shrugged. “If it's not, come back next week.”

“Are you sure?” I asked him. “Is there anything I can do to stop this from happening again?”

“A lot of the time we never know what caused the rash,” he told me. “You probably just came into contact with something that really irritated you.”

Max Read is the former editor of Gawker.

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A version of this article appeared in print on December 03, 2015, in the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "A persistent case of bad insurance" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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