Navigating Covered California, While Navigating to Marfa
The night before I left Austin for Marfa, I had terrible nightmares. I had been navigating the confusing Covered California health insurance website for a few months now. Despite having done what I thought was required, my application had been “pending” for weeks. T was kind enough to look at it for me and with his help I uploaded the final necessary documents. In order to access the market place and receive any kind of tax credit, you must fill out your expected income for 2017. Unfortunately, while I do not anticipate this state for every long, I am currently unemployed, having actively quit my job working at a contemporary art museum just a few weeks ago. It was utterly disheartening to fill out form after form saying that I do not have an income currently. Obviously, in these government forms there is no comments sections in which to write:
“I am currently unemployed, but I am confident I will find employment as soon as I arrive at my final destination in Los Angeles. I chose to quit my job in order to create a necessary life change and focus on my personal wellbeing.”
I am sure no bureaucrat has any interest in hearing every case's ‘extenuating circumstances.’ Instead there is just a blank box in which to fill out your expected income.
By the time I finished the application, I was pretty disheartened. Not only was I unable to reach anyone at the helpline to see that I had completed the application correctly, I was running out of time to file as the deadline for the marketplace was the next day. Writing my ‘anticipated 2017 income’ over and over again, was starting to make me feel queasy. What was I doing? Why I had I left my perfectly comfortable life working at a great institution, to head into the unknown with some vague notion of something bigger and better? I was moving to Los Angeles, land of the beautiful twenty-something. How am I to compete with the skinny blond rich girls of the O.C.?
I have never in my adult life been unemployed. I worked all through college as a monitor at The Ringling College’s wood shop and immediately fell into a good job working as an event coordinator for a catering company. When I eventually quit working for that caterer, I found another position just a month later, after I had already accepted two jobs working at a decrepit mismanaged vintage clothing store and a mediocre taco place. To say I do not know what to do with myself without a “career” would be an understatement.
That night I had a dream that I had taken some terrible job, the actual task of which I am not sure. I was being trained by some teenage girl, who was shocked to learn that I had left a career working for an institution to do this job. We opened a broom closet and a stream of rats came flooding out. I could not move my body away in time and they knocked me to the floor, gnashing their teeth into my sides. I awoke in a cold sweat. It was 6AM. I got up, packed my few possessions into my car, loaded my bike onto my rack, and pulled out of my friend’s garage.
On the road I tried to call the Covered California market place again, but after a lengthy time dealing with an automated operator, I was greeted with the message,
"We are sorry, due to the high call volume we are experiencing, we cannot take your call. Goodbye. — Click”
I still had not received an email or any update suggesting that I was on track to have health insurance. I had visions of blinding cramps sending me to the hospital and a lifetime of bills that would follow. I tried not to dwell on it. I had six hours to Marfa and there was nothing I could do until I arrived there.
"The sky is enormous,” I wrote in a small journal I keep on my dash. The dessert landscape stretched before me for miles and miles. I drove in silence, eyes hypnotized by the horizon line convening at a single point ahead. The sky was cloudy for miles, a dense fog that weighed heavy on my already heavy thoughts, then without warning, the clouds completely broke away and there was nothing between me and miles of bright blue Texas sky. I tried and failed to call the Covered California line again. My mother gave me the name of an insurance broker in Atlanta, who charges $300 upfront for their service. I had refused this option a few months ago, thinking that I as an intelligent, independent, computer savvy, woman could navigate the marketplace on my own. I cursed myself for my arrogance now, it was the deadline day for signing up and I was still uninsured come January. I called this broker now, hoping against all hope I was not too late. The woman’s name was Jennifer and she answered immediately with a frazzled, “Hello?! Can I help you?!”
“Oh uh hi, my name is Ro, I was told you could help me find health insurance?”
“I am just finishing up a call, but I wanted to answer you! Can I give you a call back?!” she said with such confidence and enthusiasm I instantly felt myself relax.
“Of course, I will have my phone on my all day. Thank you.”
I stopped in Fredericksburg, TX a quintessential one horse town. I watched a cowboy ride a horse down Main Street. Needing a jolt of energy, I happened to stumble upon Ranch Road Roasters, an independent coffee shop and roastery located right on my route. I walked into the tiny wooden box of a room and was greeted by a man behind the counter and a surprisingly long line. The friendly barista knew most everyone’s order who approached the counter and made each latte quickly but with great care. I ordered a simple black coffee. Many people who suffer from Crohn’s find coffee too acidic for our weak bellies, fortunately, I find it soothing and as long I drink it black, it is one of my very few indulgences. Expertly roasted and well prepared, the coffee was a welcome break from watered down gas station drip I had been anticipating. If you ever find yourself in Fredericksburg and need a pick me up, this is the place.
Having finished Cheryl Strayed’s Wild I pushed play on Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. It is the nonfiction story of the author’s attempt to eat only locally grown food for an entire year. The books subjects range from farming tips, agribusiness, food justice, to the national health crisis. While I find it fascinating given my current diet, when I told my sister what I was listening to her exact words were, “That could not sound more boring. I would rather read literally anything else.”
Jennifer, the health insurance broker, called me about midday. “So!” she said in her perky falsetto. “What can I do for you?!”
“Well, I am moving to California and have been trying to sign up on the Covered California website for a while, I just can’t seem to navigate it, and the deadline is tomorrow.”
“Well sweetheart, I’d love to help you, but I am not licensed in California. So there’s not really anything I can do for you.”
“Oh wow, really? Ok. I uh, I’m just pretty anxious about this. I keep hitting dead ends every time I think I have figured it out.”
“Maybe if it weren’t so close to the deadline, I could take a look at your case and give you some advice, but given the timing I’ve got hundreds of clients all trying to sign up today. Since I’ve been on the phone with you, I’ve had three people beep in.”
“Sure sure, I understand, I will figure it out. I don’t want to take too much of your time.”
“No problem dear! Good luck with everything! I wish I could have been more help!”
FUCK. Another dead end. I went back to the vision of myself in a hospital bed, uninsured and racking up hundreds of thousands in debt.
A few hours later, I arrived in Marfa, Texas. Marfa, Texas feels like the apocalypse happened and all that survived were a few good looking white people in big black hats and cowboy boots. It has the eerie aesthetic of a movie set or a vogue catalogue shoot. The entire town seems to be a only a mile wide and yet it hosts numerous art galleries, including a contemporary museum, and Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation. There is a tiny grocery store that from the outside I assumed would only have a wall of sodas and gas station grade hotdogs, but is actually a health food grocer that would put Whole Foods to shame. As far as I could tell, there were very few people in town, it seemed like mostly artists visiting from elsewhere.
I booked a Safari Tent at the campground El Cosmico. Less like traditional camping and closer to what I have heard referred too as “glamping” or glamorous camping. The sort of set-up that I honestly find more comfortable and certainly more Instagram-able. I paid $85 a night to stay in a beautifully decorated canvas tent, with a heated bed pad (this was heavenly), and fresh linens. There were outdoor showers and baths (love), a comfortable cabin lobby with wifi, a fireplace, a large concrete countered communal kitchen, and an expensive store selling things like $65 El Cosmico bandanas. There were also Jacuzzi tubs, that use only fresh water without chlorine and are heated by a wood burning stove, unfortunately, these require reservation well ahead of time and have a hefty price tag of $75 for the privilege.
I checked in, lugging my items past a circle of teepees and a pastel colored tailer park, to tent number 12. I dropped my bags and returned to the lobby to try the seemingly undoable task of getting my damn health insurance.
I posted up on my computer at a picnic table outside and went to www.coveredca.com. My application still said pending and had no other information to offer me. On a hunch, I clicked on a small side icon that read 'Find Local Help.' I entered in my California zip code and was pleased to find a list of ‘agents and advocates.’ I called the first name on the list. It went to an crackling voicemail, so I tried the second one.
“Hello, this is Mike,” said a man with a California accent, his voice going up at the end of the sentence like a question.
“Oh hello, my name is Ro, I am looking to find health insurance in the state of California?”
“Absolutely, I can definitely help you with that. I am just finishing up with another client and I will call you back immediately.”
“That would be fantastic, please.”
“I will speak to you in twenty minutes!” he said and promptly hung up.
I laid in a pink and yellow crocheted hammock between two trees, my phone on my belly incase Mike called again, I settled in unintentionally eavesdropping on two women sitting near me at the picnic tables.
“I just feel like I’m really adjusting to life here, you know? The energies are really lining up. It’s been difficult. I went from making over six figures in LA to much less than that here. I’m not drinking these days so my expenses are low, but the energy of this place can either lift you up or get very dark, you know?”
The woman wore dark oversized sunglasses, a wide brim black hat, and had dark brown hair cut into an angular bod. She was hunched over, arms crossing her chest, hugging herself. The woman sitting across from her nodded reassuringly. She had short cropped blond hair, hefty build, and wore a long sleeve green flannel, covered by a puffy green vest. “Well with all of my clients, I just try to get an understanding of where their energy lies to start, you know?”
I rolled my eyes. Fortunately, my phone rang at that moment, much quicker than I anticipated.
“Hello this Mike Kalen here. You said you needed insurance?”
“Yes! Hi! I am moving to California and I have had a very difficult time with the Covered California website.”
“Well, I can certainly help you with that. Congratulations on your move.”
“Oh, thank you. Well, I will tell you upfront, that I do not have a job lined up, so I do not know what my income will be. But I am very resourceful and I guarantee I will not be without something for very long. I chose to leave my position as an event manager and I anticipate doing similar work when I get to Los Angeles.”
It felt good to be able to tell someone my 'extenuating circumstance' instead of resigning myself to the single blank box for 'income 2017.'
“Well that sounds great, I can definitely help you. In addition to being a broker, I am a patient advocate so, I can help you find insurance and I can help you find well regarded doctors locally, and help you with costs down the road.”
“Wow, that would be great. I was just excited someone answered the phone for a change. I thought I would go crazy if I had to wait for one more automated voice to hang up on me.” I laughed and so did he.
“I know people have had a heck of a time getting in touch with Covered California, myself included.”
We talked for two hours. He gave me all of my options to the point where my head was spinning. I eventually settled on a Kaiser private plan that I would then move to Medical in January, since I was without an income. Mike explained (and I pray this is true) that the Medical expansion is an income based insurance supplement, with no tax penalty at the end of the year, or should my income change drastically. I would be using Kaiser’s network, which admittedly is limiting, but just requires more research on my part, for better or worse, Mike made me feel confident that he would help me in that process down the road.
I sat on the burnt orange leather sofa in front of a roaring fire in El Cosmico’s lobby. Under Mike’s direction, I successfully signed up for a Kaiser Bronze plan through their website. I was pleased to learn that there was some issue with my Covered California application and it was not my own user error. Since the CC line was totally incommunicable, Mike suggested we go through the private plan and in January will sign up for Medical. After I received my confirmation email, a calm finally came over me. It was like Zach had said to me just yesterday, it is about control and figuring out how to make the system work for you.
That night I took a hot bath in the outdoor clawfoot tub and curled up in my heated blanketed bed. I relaxed in the knowledge that I had figured out this one tiny element of moving. I felt reassured that the tasks ahead, job hunting, friend making, community building, would happen as long as I relaxed and took them as they came.