Speaking of Women's Rights: 10/13

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Good news: Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) is (mostly) working for Washington State women

By Roberta Riley

"This is awesome! What a relief," she exclaimed when the message flashed up on her screen: starting January 1, 2014, Ingrid will have no cost health insurance. "I can finally get my knee fixed."

Everyday she carts her shovel, loppers, saw and clippers up and down Seattle's steepest neighborhoods, tending gardens, digging up shrubs and pruning trees. As the sole proprietor of Seabiscuit Landscaping, Ingrid cannot afford to be hobbled by a bum knee.

"If it turns out I need surgery, I won't need to worry about huge medical bills. Having health coverage means I can save for retirement," she said. This year she turns 50, and every day she worries about how to make ends meet, especially as she gets older.

Ingrid is one of millions of Americans who will benefit from the Affordable Care Act.  As you may have heard, the brand-new federal healthcare exchange got off to a rocky start in October. It did not help matters that Republicans temporarily shut down the federal government in a failed effort to defund this health reform measure. Yet, even with the feds back in operation, technical problems with the federal website persist.

Fortunately, Ingrid and others in our state fared much better because leaders here opted to create our own state exchange. As of this writing, over 92,000 Washingtonians have signed up for coverage using Washington Healthplanfinder.

Ingrid kindly allowed me observe as she plowed through the online enrollment process, which took about an hour. This enabled us to come up with a few tips to help others in our state get enrolled.

Before you begin, have a good strong cup of coffee and gather:
  • last year’s tax return and this month’s income information;
  • your bank account information; and
  • the names and correct spellings of any doctors and/or hospital(s) where you would want to be treated.

Then go to the official website://www.wahealthplanfinder.org/
(Be careful to enter the correct site – there are scam sites out there.)

Click on the box to begin an application, bearing in mind the site has some fussy features, such as no AutoCorrect and a limited number of symbols that must be used to create one's personal password.

Don't be stymied by the strange, multiple-choice security questions at the outset. My hunch is some of those questions are intended to verify you are a real human being, not a machine.  (But I confess, I am not a computer programmer.)

The next round of questions – asking about pregnancy status, long-term care, whether any college students live in your household and whether you have unpaid medical expenses – are geared to helping people get into certain programs.

Last of all come questions about income, which determines whether an applicant qualifies for no-cost or low-cost coverage.

This part was somewhat perplexing for Ingrid because in one place, the application asked about monthly income, and in another, about monthly business income. As a sole proprietor, Ingrid's income is one and the same. So, at first she filled in the same amount in both places, but quickly realized doing so made her income appear double what it actually is. Then she put her last month's income into the "gross monthly amount" bracket and a zero into the business income bracket, and was able to properly deduct her business expenses by dividing by 12 the total amount declared on her previous year's tax return.

She checked her work for accuracy, then pressed the next button and immediately learned of her new, no-cost coverage, a feature of the Medicaid expansion of the Affordable Care Act. Her face beamed as she read the good news. It was a sweet moment.

Then an error message popped up: "the application has malfunctioned." She wondered if she'd entered something incorrectly.  She feared she might have to redo the entire application.

So she dialed the official call center and learned the system is currently overwhelmed with high volumes of people eager to enroll.  In fact, the state announced plans to hire 145 more customer service representatives to work at its toll-free call center.

Fortunately, Ingrid’s fears did not materialize. Within hours, she received an email message with a link asking her to log in to the official website once again.

She clicked on the link, logged in with her username and password, and, to her delight, it all worked. A message popped up indicating her application was received, and her Washington Apple Health Adult coverage begins 1-1-14. A few days later, her brand-new health coverage card arrived in her snail mail. At long last, financial security is within her reach. 
(October has been an extraordinarily busy month for both of the women I introduced to readers in my last post.  Business is booming for Heather, 28, the owner of Canary Salon on Broadway; and Carrie, 52, founder of Little Eorthe Farm in Orting, harvested a big crop of vegetables.  Their Affordable Care Act enrollment stories will follow in blog posts to come.) 
The official website and call center for the Washington State Exchange is:
1-855-WAFINDER (855-923- 4633)  https://www.wahealthplanfinder.org/

Roberta Riley currently works for Northwest Health Law Advocates, a non-profit dedicated to health care for all. In her former role as Legal Counsel for Planned Parenthood, Ms. Riley won a groundbreaking federal court decision requiring health plan coverage of prescription contraception. She has also served as a consumer advocate at the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, and was appointed to the Washington State Health Reform Realization Panel by the Hon. Mike Kreidler. In recognition of her achievements on behalf of women, she was given a 2001 Ms. Magazine Women the Year Award.
A similar version of this article appears in the Puget Sound Alliance for Retired Americans newsletter.

Monday, October 28, 2013

A Victory in Court for Domestic Violence Awareness

Did you know that October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month?  Every year, we mark this occasion by mourning those who lost their lives to intimate partner violence, celebrating survivors, and renewing our commitment to ending domestic violence.

This year, we also received some good news from the Washington Supreme Court that coincided with Domestic Violence Awareness Month.  On October 17, the Court issued a powerful decision that shows how improved awareness of domestic violence can result in stronger legal protections for survivors.  But tragically, the case also demonstrates how the lack of awareness of domestic violence can lead to preventable deaths.

The case was Washburn v. City of Federal Way.  The facts of the case are horrifying. In 2008, Baerbel Roznowski obtained a protection order to require her abusive partner Paul Kim to leave her home.  Ms. Roznowski filled out paperwork that specifically informed the police that Mr. Kim was likely to react violently when served with the order, had a history of assault, and would need an interpreter to understand the order.

But the police officer who served the protection order didn’t even read the paperwork Ms. Roznowski completed.  Instead, the officer knocked on the door to Ms. Roznowski’s home, handed the order to Mr. Kim, and walked away.  The officer saw Ms. Roznowski in the background but never asked to speak to her.  Instead, the officer left Mr. Kim alone in the house with Ms. Roznowski, in direct violation of the protection order.  Three hours later, Mr. Kim stabbed Ms. Roznowski to death.

Legal Voice, joined by several allies, filed an amicus brief arguing that the city must be held liable for negligence in connection with Ms. Roznowski’s death.  We argued that the officer should have been aware that his actions put Ms. Roznowski in danger.  We emphasized that it is widely known that victims of domestic violence face a higher risk of violence when they attempt to separate from abusive intimate partners, and the police must have a duty to guard against this danger when they serve protection orders.

In a unanimous decision, the Washington Supreme Court agreed with us.  The Court held that the City violated a duty to take “reasonable steps” to guard against the possibility that Mr. Kim would harm Ms. Roznowski.  The Court held that “the police are generally aware of the problem of separation violence” and that the officer’s “duty to act reasonably required him to take steps to guard Roznowski against Kim’s criminal acts.”

The Court’s decision is both encouraging and heartbreaking.  It is encouraging because it shows, at least in this context, that all nine members of the Court were well aware of the risk that Ms. Roznowski faced, and agreed that the police must take reasonable steps to ensure a victim’s safety when serving protection orders.  This decision will literally save lives.

But the Court’s decision is also heartbreaking because it underscores that Ms. Roznowski’s death could have been prevented, if only the police had been aware of the danger she faced and taken the threat seriously.

And the need to take domestic violence seriously is just as urgent as ever.  On average, three women each day are murdered by intimate partners in the United States – and thousands more are beaten, terrorized, and subjected to coercive control by abusers.  Although justice has come too late for Ms. Roznowski, we hope the Supreme Court’s decision will help ensure that what happened to Ms. Roznowski never happens to another woman in Washington.