How the ACA is Changing Lives

Elvis Nguyen, 28, the owner of Nice Furniture, a small business in Long Beach, said having insurance has given him peace of mind. Photo: Jessica Portner/CHR
Elvis Nguyen, 28, the owner of Nice Furniture, a small business in Long Beach, said having insurance has given him peace of mind. Photo: Jessica Portner/CHR

The federal health law known as the Affordable Care Act has become a partisan punching bag in Washington D.C., but for singer Georgia Bennett*, the new law could not sound any sweeter. The law gave her peace of mind when she lost her job, and now she sees it as part of the foundation for a new business she is trying to get off the ground.

Bennett, a 50-year-old singer and songwriter who lives with her partner Jim Quealy in Seal Beach, was laid off from her executive assistant job at a Caterpillar dealership in February.

The coverage available to her through the old COBRA Program for the unemployed was beyond her financial reach. Now, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, Bennett is paying $1 a month, a rate based on the low income she currently receives from unemployment insurance.

In the past, Bennett clung to dead-end jobs simply because she needed the benefits. But the insurance she can now buy through Covered California, the new agency implementing federal health reform here, will allow her to pursue her dreams.

“It’s been a detriment to my career decisions, because I’ve had to get stupid jobs just for insurance,” she said. She knows when her income goes up, she’ll have to reapply and pay a higher rate, but she says “This allows me more choice. It’s been a godsend.”

Bennett is one among hundreds of thousands of Californians newly insured under the law. The California Health Report recently spoke to a small sample of these people in Los Angeles County to find out how the law has changed their lives.

Bennett’s partner, Jim Quealy, a musician who plays guitar at restaurants three nights a week, had no insurance for years due to preexisting conditions.

He has multiple health challenges, including hypothyroidism and a rare bicuspid aortic valve condition, for which he needs an echocardiogram, an expensive test, to see if his heart muscle is enlarging.

“With my conditions, there was nothing for me,” said Quealy, 60, who now pays $60 a month for a Blue Shield plan. He found a doctor near where he and Bennett live and plans to go in for a checkup soon. Quealy said he also needs a colonoscopy, particularly since his mother died of colon cancer. “There is a list of things that could be potential disaster,” he said. “Having this insurance could save your life.”

Youth Banking on Security

Elvis Nguyen, 28, is the owner of Nice Furniture, a small, family business in Long Beach that sells sofas and bedroom sets wholesale. At an enrollment event at Earl’s BBQ, he purchased a Health Net Enhanced Silver plan for himself. His father signed up for Medi-Cal.

With an annual salary of $46,000 a month, Nguyen was able to get a subsidy for the $200 plan, making his monthly premium $70.

“We owned a small business and everything was paid cash to go to the doctor,” he said, “Now, we don’t have to worry about going to the doctor’s office. I don’t want to get stuck with six-figure medical bills in case something happens.”

A Sweet Deal

Amy Jurist makes delectable dinners as a Los Angeles-based chef, and now, after years of searching, she has discovered the sweet spot in the health insurance marketplace that will allow her to keep focused on her business, Amy’s Culinary Adventures.

Jurist had been paying a $565 monthly premium for years for United Health Care. She said, “It was a fortune” to go out of network. Recently, she spent three hours in the emergency room with bronchitis and acute respiratory distress and ended up paying $1,300 out of pocket for the visit. She’s still paying off $15,000 worth of medical bills mostly related to treatment and diagnosis of vasculitis disease.

Jurist signed up for Covered California through a health insurance broker and 20 minutes later she had applied for a Blue Shield plan that was $400 and included eye care. The premium payments alone will save her about $2,000 per year, she said, and she’s expecting the coverage to be better, too: “Now I am going to do things because I know I’m going to be saving money.”

Filling the Gap

Julie Morez, 60, was recently laid off from her job as a library technician for the Sierra Madre Library, where she had worked for 20 years. Since COBRA — which allows laid off employees to continue in their employee’s plan but at their own expense — was too expensive, Morez hopped onto her husband’s insurance. Then, he was laid off a few months later.

The couple went without insurance for a couple of months last fall until they could enroll in the Health Net Silver HMO, which costs them $96 a month. They would pay for prescriptions and doctor’s visits in cash, which sometimes totaled a couple hundred dollars.

Thankfully, her husband got a job in May as a mechanic, so the health insurance calculations and comparisons will soon begin again. “Now that he’s got a job, we will have to find out whether he gets insurance through his work how much that will cost now.” That gap coverage while they were unemployed was key, Morez said: “It has helped us out a lot.”

*Name changed to protect privacy

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