A couple of weeks ago, I was playing with my little boy while my wife was taking her life insurance physical at the dining room table. The visiting nurse was asking questions, and Ingrid was breast-feeding our baby as she answered.
“Well, my mother nearly had a stroke a few years ago, and her doctor put her on steroids, and now she has polymyalgia,” Ingrid said.
“Poly… myalgia,” I heard the nurse mutter.
“Oh yeah, and my doctor said that my fainting spells might have been caused by low blood pressure.”
“That would do it,” said the nurse.
By this time, I was on my feet and heading towards the laptop in our bedroom-cum-home office. Ingrid had her own laptop open in front of her in the other room, and I sent her a frantic e-mail, hoping she would get it before the nurse stamped the word “REJECTED” on her file.
“Subject: STOP OVERSHARING,” I hammered out “Everything is fine. You’ve never been sick, and neither has anyone else in the family. Ever.”
I could no longer hear the conversation, but I feared the worst. “Well, all in all, I’m pretty healthy,” I pictured Ingrid saying as she twisted a lock of hair around her finger. “Once a month — every few weeks, tops — I wake up and I’m blind, but it usually goes away by lunchtime. And sometimes I get these prickly sensations in my legs; you know, like pins and needles? But I shouldn’t complain. Most of the time, I can’t feel them at all.”
A few hours later, a small group of actuaries back at the home office would be adding a bunch of zeros to her premium. “What a shame — just years to live. And she’s a mom, too,” one of them would say, as he pasted tiny red flags all over her application.
Ingrid and I have long scrambled to maintain health insurance, first for ourselves, and now for our kids. As self-employed people whose bosses don’t pay much, buying into a regular plan has never been an option. Here in New York City, our premiums would run higher than our monthly housing costs — and around these parts, that’s saying something.
Our low earning power has had one benefit, however. As certifiably near-destitute individuals, we qualify for a couple of subsidized health insurance programs that New York State provides to people who are too poor to buy their own coverage but too flush for Medicare. So while we can’t afford to replace the cracked bumper on our 2000 Honda minivan, we can still have our blood tested and our children vaccinated.
When I say “qualify,” I mean that we have figured out what to tell the people who administer these programs so that they will keep us on their rolls. Mostly, this involves sussing out the secret formulae that the insurance companies and the state government use to determine eligibilty, while desperately trying not to say anything that might get us kicked off the island.
ME: “So, bearing in mind that this entire conversation is totally hypothetical and that I have never given you my name, how much would we have to pay each month if we earned more than, let’s say, $40,000 a year?”
HEALTH INSURANCE COMPANY FACILITATOR: “$2000.”
ME: “And how much would we pay in an imaginary universe where we earned less than $40,000 a year?”
HEALTH INSURANCE COMPANY FACILITATOR: “$200.”
ME: “So here’s the deal. We make $39,999. Do you need to have that notarized?”
We’ve never exactly lied about our financial situation, but we have learned to present ourselves in the most eligible light possible. Even so, we’ve had a couple of close calls, and the entire process makes us incredibly anxious. As a result, I’ve come to think that it’s best simply to say whatever it takes to keep us and our kids covered and out of the poorhouse – or the morgue. So when my finely tuned insurance-seeking antennae detected a potential eligibility implosion in progress, I leapt into action.
Of course, Ingrid didn’t get my e-mail until hours later, at which point it made no sense whatsoever. When I explained what I had been thinking, she rolled her eyes.
“She wasn’t writing any of that down,” she said of the nurse, with whom she had bonded long before I began eavesdropping on their conversation. (Kim is a grandmother with a bad hip, and her husband runs a pizzeria near the beach in Far Rockaway, Queens. Apparently, we’re all going there for a swim and a slice next summer.)
Still, better safe than sorry. Anyhow, I’m just proud that my wife –- and our kids -– are so incredibly healthy.
Preferred-rate healthy, if you know what I mean.