In my role as a queer activist, I am privileged that I get to do a lot of work with Q Center, which operates both the LGBTQ Community Center and the Sexual and Gender Minority Youth Resource Center (SMYRC) in Portland. This past year in my work with Q Center, I've also had the opportunity to serve on Cover Oregon's LGBTQ Communications Advisory panel, helping to ensure that, as the Affordable Care Act rolls out in my state, the community I care so deeply about has the same opportunities to access healthier, happier futures as everyone else.
At this point, there has been so much confusing Affordable Care Act news coverage that many people in Oregon (and across the land) have developed ACA fatigue just from having to hear about it around the clock -- myself included. As is the case with most politicized, polarizing hot topics, the media tends to focus on the most sensational of stories, often missing the point entirely. This is just how said media works, and the stories surrounding health insurance reform have been no different.
Roughly 230,000 Oregonians have already enrolled through the Cover Oregon portal so far, with 10 days left to go before the April 30th, 2014 extended deadline. We know that LGBTQ communities face barriers in accessing healthcare that non-LGBTQ communities just simply do not face, so I thought it might be cool to throw a couple of stories you probably haven't already heard into the mix, in case you are also feeling the "ACA fatigue" or have been discouraged from exploring the process of getting covered all together.
Amidst hiccups, delays and confusion, it's important to hear these success stories (and the thousands of others like them) to get a clearer picture of what the ACA actually means for queer and trans people, now that being LGBTQ is no longer a "preexisting condition."
Meet Natalie Marie Sofina Mayorga, a 34-year-old trans/genderqueer pansexual (pictured left), and Danny O'Connor, a 28 year old cisgender gay man from Portland (pictured right). I caught up with both Natalie and Danny this week to discuss their experiences enrolling for health insurance through Cover Oregon.
Logan Lynn: Thank you for taking time out to share your stories, you two! Did you have insurance before enrolling with Cover Oregon?
Natalie Marie Sofina Mayorga: I didn't have any insurance prior to enrolling in Cover Oregon. I never could afford any sort of basic coverage. I applied for the Oregon Health Plan and was put in their lottery system. Unfortunately for me I was never selected and had to reapply each year.
Danny O'Connor: I did not have health care before enrolling with Cover Oregon.
Lynn: What was it like to not have health insurance?
O'Connor: It was horrible. The smallest things like STD scares, routine colds or even an infection became giant expenses. I felt like a criminal for falling ill, so I did my very best to avoid the emergency room. Unfortunately two years ago I was sued by Providence and OHSU for my medical bills, and they won. I was garnished for $6,000 and lost faith in this country in ways I never knew I could. When Cover Oregon came on the radar along with health care reforms I was relieved for the first time in years.
Mayorga: It was always difficult not having coverage. I was forced to locate and utilize free clinics. Typically they are first come, first serve clinics and I would need to show up early in the morning across town from where I live and hope that they had enough appointments for the day so I could be seen. Occasionally I would be given a "wait list" pass and would have to return later in the day in the hopes of being seen. It was a very difficult situation if I needed medical care, and made it hard to work and keep a regular schedule. The only other option I had at the time was to go to the emergency room and this was generally not preferred, as it would just mean accruing a large bill/debt that would take me forever to pay.
Lynn: Ugh! That sounds rough. Why did you apply for health insurance through Cover Oregon verses seeking insurance directly with a carrier?
O'Connor: I was intimidated by carrier websites and didn't want to be mislead by their flashy advertisements and suggestions for plans. Cover Oregon was straight to the point, and who could resist that Cover Oregon "Long Live in Oregon" jingle on Youtube?
Mayorga: A professional acquaintance of mine suggested I attend a Cover Oregon Fair in order to get assistance applying for healthcare. Since I had no prior knowledge about how to apply for insurance other than Oregon Health Plan I figured I could use the help. It seemed like the fair was a good opportunity for me to get help with this and gather some additional information about the law and future requirements for maintaining health care insurance.
Lynn: And what was the Cover Oregon experience like for you?
Mayorga: Very helpful. There was a short registration process online before attending the fair. When I arrived at the fair there was a greeters table and the volunteers there were very helpful in getting me oriented to the process and making sure I had access to all the information I would need. They also had applications ready and were able to assist attendees in filling them out.
Lynn: Did you work with a community partner or an agent, or did you apply on your own?
Mayorga: I was assigned a community partner at the time of the fair and they helped me finish filling out the application and familiarized me with the timeline for filing. My community partners name was Jason. Over the next two months Jason kept in contact with me via email regarding the status of my application and what steps I needed to complete in order to ensure that I was approved promptly. Additionally, he was helpful in getting my application approved for a "fast track" which got me covered by the beginning of the year.
Lynn: Go Jason!
O'Connor: I was offered help and very impressed by the queer community outreach, but I'm nomadic and did it by myself online.
Lynn: How was that?
O'Connor: The form was a little hard to fill out online, but after two tries I got it done. The only thing that confused me is that I didn't get any notice that everything was going smoothly after filling out my enrollment form. I got a letter one day a few weeks later with my health insurance information and benefits card. It was a nice surprise, but people want peace of mind with this kind of process.
Lynn: Oh, for sure... particularly after the experience you had previously with accessing healthcare, I'm guessing. I do love a good surprise, though. (laughs) How did this compare to other times you've shopped for insurance?
O'Connor: It was much easier. I don't understand all the negative press about Cover Oregon.
Mayorga: I never really shopped for insurance before except for applying for the Oregon Health Plan through Adult and Family Services. This was always a lengthy, confusing and time consuming process which I rarely had help with.
Lynn: How much do you think you were paying before getting insurance through Cover Oregon?
Mayorga: I was paying out of pocket for medical care as it was given. Essentially this means I tried to avoid going to the doctor or getting sick. If I absolutely had to seek medical attention I would go to a free clinic or one that would charge on a sliding scale.
Lynn: That sounds stressful. Are you able to get the health care you need now?
Mayorga: I now have Health Share/Care Oregon. I am in the process of finding a primary care physician. I need to contact my provider in order to see who I can select but it's just a matter of following through at this point. I'm not as worried at this point about getting sick. Just knowing that I have some sort of coverage is a relief to me. I'll be able to find a doctor and a dentist now and get the assistance when I need it.
O'Connor: Mine is still in the works. I'm just happy to have health care at all!
Lynn: What would you say to others in your community about Cover Oregon?
O'Connor: Go for it! Don't listen to the naysayers and please get yourself some insurance and back on track!
Mayorga: I don't know how my experience compares with others, but I had an overall good experience and was able to get help and obtain insurance that I otherwise wouldn't have. I think that Cover Oregon helped with that process and for me it was a good thing.
Lynn: Anything else you'd like to tell me about this experience of getting health insurance?
O'Connor: It's wonderful to have this opportunity to lift myself into better health. We should be grateful health care reform has happened. It's definitely welcome good news. I personally would prefer a single payer system, but I'll take what I get.
Mayorga: This is the first time in about 12 years that I've actually had some sort of coverage so it has meant a lot to me that this program was available and there were volunteers and folks in the community that helped me along the way. I hear a lot of negative things from people about the Affordable Care Act, and I understand that Cover Oregon was something that was already in the making before the act was passed, but since has become associated with it, but what ever it is that made these changes come about, the simple fact for me remains: I didn't have any sort of coverage before and little hope of getting any, and I do now, thanks to these changes and the experience and help I had through Cover Oregon.
To learn more about why The Affordable Care Act matters to LGBTQ Oregonians, visit here.