by Patricia Kneisler

First of all, I need to get a little something out of the way. My circumstances are by no means “the most horrible thing you’ve ever heard tell of.” I’m one of the lucky ones who has always been able to earn pretty good money. I’ve been a homeowner for over 22 years. I’ve paid my bills and my taxes on time. And, I have to say, although most assuredly not a spendthrift, I certainly haven’t had to count my pennies every time I decided to take myself out for dinner, or buy a new pair of jeans, or stop into my local independent book seller for a good book or four or more…

I’ve done OK for a single woman with no kids.

That is, I’ve done OK up until fairly recently. Suddenly I find that my so-called “American Dream” is on life support. Suddenly, I feel all of the insecurity that I thought middle class people in this country simply didn’t feel. And suddenly, I’ve come to understand what every poor person has known all their lives…that “you’re on your own, pal.” Sorry about that…

I’m a professionally registered civil engineer. So you see what I mean about being lucky in this life. In 1989, I made the momentous decision to become a self-employed civil engineer. Scared me half to death. But I did it. And after a couple of lean years, things were looking up. Of course, one of the first things I had to do was look around for a health insurance policy. After a bad experience with one insurance firm, I discovered in 1994 that my very own professional society, the American Society of Civil Engineers, offered just the coverage I needed (underwritten by a company called New York Life). Owing to the fact that I’m a pack rat, I actually still have the first stub of what I paid back then for the policy: $177 a month for $1000 deductible coverage. No doubt about it…I was set for life! And life was good.

Mind you, I was a healthy 42 year old back then. Seldom had a doctor visit that wasn’t routine. Yes, there were regular increases in the cost of my health insurance. But they were small. Nothing I couldn’t afford. In 2000, I was still only paying $245 a month.

But after 2000, I began to notice the jumps in health insurance costs began to come more frequently and were for larger amounts. Granted, I turned 50 in 2002, which kicked in one of those automatic “age related” premium increases. So by 2003, I was paying $528 a month. I have to admit I was a little worried at this point. I know this because I asked to change the policy to a $2000 deductible, and managed to trim the cost back down to $477 monthly. Hey…I was a civil engineer. I should be able to handle a $2,000 outlay if worst came to worst.

Six months later, the monthly premium shot up to $533…completely negating any advantage I had gained from increasing my deductible.

Right about this time, I began to notice that the insurance company used a standard template for the letters they sent around every time they jacked the premium up. They’d begin by telling you what the rate increase was. Then they’d say, “This is never pleasant, but it is essential…” blah blah blah. That phrase, “this is never pleasant,” began to annoy me a great deal, especially after I’d seen it for the fourth or fifth time in a span of two or three years.

By now I’m 52…and the old body is complaining. The cholesterol is trending a little high. I have heartburn from hell. Had to have my gall bladder yanked. Oh, and I’ve acquired a strange little condition called Raynauds in which my fingers go dead, white and numb at the slightest chill…then purple…then finally back to pink. No one knew why.

In December of 2004, the premium went to $602 a month. Six months later, it shot up to $710. That’s when I began to “joke” to my friends that, heh, pretty soon I’d be paying as much for insurance as the $805 per month I was paying for my mortgage. In late 2005, I called the insurance company and asked to go to a $3000 deductible policy. Man, what a life saver that was…the premium dropped to…a whole $647. Somehow I wasn’t terribly relieved.

Sure enough, nothing changed. Every six months the rate went up — to $675, then $705 in December of 2006 — which was nearly the price I’d previously paid for the $2000 deductible policy. Again, my cost savings was negated in a matter of months.

In June of 2007, my “joke” about my mortgage came true when the premium shot up to $931 a month.

That was a bad year, 2007. Fell into a severe bout of depression and couldn’t work much for several months. The cost of health insurance, and most of my other expenses, got paid out of my home equity account. Hello, debt. Thank god for the psychiatrist who was NOT covered by my health insurance. He charged me a low rate for his services, and provided meds free of charge for many, many months.

The health coverage rate increases continued on their regular six-month schedule: $1,016 a month, then $1,132 a month in June of 2008. At this point, the insurance company changed administrators, and wrote us all a letter telling us how much money we were going to save now! They used to send bills that were perforated so that you could just neatly tear the pay portion off of the bottom and send it in. Not any more. Nowadays they were “saving money.” I kid you not … they deleted the perforations so that I had to find a pair of scissors to cut the pay portions off myself. Wow. Just…wow.

In December of 2008, the rate went to $1,268 a month. But my income had picked back up by now, so I gamely managed to pay it.

Then in January of 2009, I began to see a rheumatologist. Remember my frozen fingers? My little case of Raynauds? Come to find out, it meant something after all. It meant that I could have a rare autoimmune disorder called scleroderma. Expensive tests like a chest CAT scan and pulmonary function tests and an echocardiogram followed over the course of that year. And the health insurance premiums kept pace…$1,387 a month, then $1,492 a month by December of 2009.

By now the chest CAT scan and pulmonary function tests showed mild lung scarring and mild decrease in lung function. Early in 2010, I had to add a pulmonologist to the rheumatologist and the general practitioner.

And by now, I can see the handwriting on the wall. And so can my insurance company. In June 2010, the premium rose to $1,803 monthly. That’s nearly $22,000 a year for those of you who have misplaced your calculators. And I was seriously struggling to find the money. I also knew that in two short years I’d hit another “age-related” increase at age 60. That’s when it hit me that I was nearly at the end of the line. But somehow I managed to scrape up the money to pay up the policy until the end of 2010.

In October I called the insurance company to see what kind of deductible increase I’d have to settle for this time in order to get a lowered cost. And I was told that the company was no longer providing options for premium reductions. If you couldn’t pay the piper, you were just out of luck. So sorry. This from the insurer used by my own professional society, the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The next month they announced what I would have to pay by January of 2011 in order to continue my coverage:

$2,233 a month. Or nearly $27,000 a year.

And this self-employed civil engineer simply doesn’t have that kind of money. Worse, the huge premium payments I’d made previously had sucked all of the oxygen out of my finances, leaving me scraping to pay for groceries each month. And leaving me in debt with a virtually wiped out savings account. And now I’ve got a chronic illness. And I need medical insurance. But I’ve got a chronic illness. So no private insurance company will touch me. Kaiser took all of five days to turn me down cold. I bet they laughed uproariously when they saw my application (“As if!”).

So, when 2010 turns into 2011, I will be “going naked”…no more health insurance.

Suffice it to say that I now have far more than a passing interest in working to get California OneCare passed. For me, and for millions of other Californians, it is absolutely essential. The private health insurers priced me right out of the market once I got sick. So I hope they understand why I’m now working to dump them right out of California’s lucrative marketplace. What goes around comes around, folks.