Thank you, Congress

When I left my job nearly three years ago, I left my health insurance benefit and went out on my own. “Are you crazy?” friends asked. A lot of folks, it seems, are afraid to leave their jobs for fear of losing their health insurance.

But I’d saved some money and had no glaring pre-existing conditions (or so I thought). Actually, I ended up paying a much higher premium than I would have otherwise because in the year before I left I’d seen a physical therapist for my Achilles tendonitis. Never mind the fact that I’m a runner and a hiker, therefore, in excellent cardiovascular shape. Also that year, I had a few sessions with a psychologist who gave me some stress management tools to help me with my father who had late-stage Alzheimer’s. In the eyes of the insurance company, this made me a much higher risk than someone who has not seen a psychologist.

Still, I wanted to pursue other endeavors while I was still young enough, and I was willing to use my savings to do it. I found a plan for my husband and me through Anthem. A year later, for reasons known only to them (they refused to elaborate for me), Anthem raised our premium by $100 per month. Yikes! So that I could afford to keep insurance coverage, I upped our deductible.

I’d gone on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) website in 2013 to see if I could obtain more affordable care. Late last year, the website was a mess. I had trouble getting on, and when I did, it seemed that we weren’t qualified. So I bagged it.

Then in January, my husband turned 65 and went on Medicare. Yippee! My insurance premium was more affordable than ever. A month later, I received a letter from Anthem saying that in July, they would cancel my existing policy and move me to a new one. The cost for the new policy would be more than twice my existing policy. I would go from paying $207 per month to $500 per month. Arggh!!

When I called Anthem to talk to someone about a more affordable policy, I was put on hold for two hours. Two hours of horrible guitar music interrupted in the same place every 30 seconds for a recording to tell me about grandfathered plans, which I don’t have. Finally I got someone, she took the same information I’d punched into the phone two hours earlier, and then she put me right back in the same hold loop. Finally I got a guy named Darrell in Houston, Texas. He told me that I should qualify for more assistance under the Affordable Care Act, and gave me a number to call.

I dialed the number and got put hold. But this time it felt different. The calming solo piano music made me feel good. Hopeful. A lady periodically thanked me for my patience and said I’d have their undivided attention shortly. My access to full health coverage was just a few minutes away. None of this gobbledy gook every 30 seconds about grandfathered plans, etc. It makes my blood pressure go up just remembering the Anthem hold button. This ACA music made me want to get my piano tuned and start practicing again. Maybe take lessons again. Really get good again. Anything was possible with this music.

The end of the story is that 20 minutes later I qualified for a significant tax credit and a reduction in the cost of a much better plan than the one I previously had. I signed up and it starts May 1st.

Initially I had some misgivings about accepting a subsidy. Then I came to my senses. Does Exxon Mobil have second thoughts about the billions in government subsidies it receives, even as it books record earnings for its shareholders? In my estimation, healthy Americans are even more important to this country.

But I think we’ve lost sight of something else that is really important to this country. The ability to move around in the job market. To pursue new endeavors, to try out new ideas. To start new businesses. I know brilliant entrepreneurial people who want to strike out on their own, with fabulous ideas about water management, renewable energy, and poverty abatement to name a few. People who couldn’t start up new businesses because they had pre-existing health conditions and couldn’t afford insurance if they left their jobs. The Affordable Care Act has the potential to change that. Yes, America. We can be great again.

I am healthy, and I have coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Thank you, Congress.

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The Man in the Tree

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 I’d seen him high up in the top of an oak tree in our yard, cutting dead branches and lowering them back to the earth from which they came.  He was tall and muscular— not in a work-out-in-the gym kind of way, but in the way of men who earn their living working outdoors.

What captured my attention was how coolly he donned his harness, attached ropes with magic knots and pulled himself up through the branches. How joyful he seemed up there where hawks fly, where tree tops become pendulums in a heavy breeze, and later, how darned much fun he had as he rappelled himself back down.

I had to try it I told him, and he graciously agreed to take time out of the upcoming weekend to get me up in a tree. Saturday dawned gray and damply cold, with the occasional snowflake floating about, as though with no place special to go.

He dropped his gear bag at the base of a willow oak where he planned to prune a branch that threatened the roof of his brother’s house. He handed me a 150-foot long bundle of rope and showed me how to feed it out on the ground while he stepped into his harness and adjusted it.  Remember these butt straps, he said, pointing to two adjustable straps on the back of his harness.  I’ll show you why in a few minutes.   He explained each of the carabiners that he hooked to the loops on his belt, where to attach the safety lanyard and how to check and re-check each point of attachment.  For more reasons than one, his attention to detail gave me comfort.

He attached one end of the long rope to his harness, showing me how to tie the knot with some rabbit-through-the hole mnemonic.  Then he threw some of the same rope over the lowest branch of the tree and connected it to his belt with a friction knot.  One more equipment check and he began to haul himself up.  His plan was to climb in this fashion, secure the rope high up in the tree, rappel back down, then with ropes still in place, help me into the harness and talk me up the tree.

Remember those butt straps? You just keep adjusting them until the harness hits you just right, he hollered down to me. Like right now, I have a huge wedgie so I have to loosen it.

What got you into tree work? I asked him.

It was about manhood, he said, climbing, taking up the slack, and climbing again.  I hadn’t learned how to run a chain saw.  Or drive a stick shift, he told me.  Those seemed like things a man ought to be able to do.  I craned my neck to watch as he secured the rope around a sturdy branch.  He paused before he started back down.  When I was in high school, I watched this older guy 60 feet up in a tree with a chainsaw and thought, it doesn’t get any more badass than that.

Tears in my eyes blurred the man in the tree, for the man in the tree was my son, and my son had just given me a window into the matters that sat heavily on his once teen-aged heart.  And what weighed him down mightily was how he might make his way in this world, and how in this world, he might become a man.

Then there he was, helping me into his harness, making sure I checked and rechecked my connections, then talking me up the tree.  I climbed, took up the slack, then climbed some more.  I paused at the top, surveyed from his vantage point the rolling hills and the bare trees that in a few weeks would be green again, and I understood why he loved this so.  Then I readjusted my butt straps and started back down. I am getting this right? I asked him.

Just lean back in the harness and push your feet against the trunk, this man told me.  Now slide the knot up and come down as fast as you want. There you go, girl!  You’ve got it now.