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How freelancers afford to stay healthy

TEXT OF STORY

Bill Radke: Under the new health care law that President Obama will sign today, self-employed people and others who don't get their insurance through work will be able to pool together using insurance exchanges. But those exchanges won't open until 2014. In the meantime, some of the self-employed are finding other ways to get insured. From the Entrepreneurship Desk at Oregon Public Broadcasting, Mitchell Hartman reports.


Mitchell Hartman: By his early 40s, Martin Walker had risen to be IT manager at a big New York law firm. He had a good salary, great benefits:

Martin Walker: And just about two years ago decided to leave, set out by myself, something that I wanted to do for a while.

Walker was planning to launch a company to develop brain-training software for improving attention span and memory.

Walker: One of the big questions that came up almost right away was, "Well, how are you going to get health insurance and how are you going to pay for that?"

Walker has three kids. They've all had health problems. And since solo entrepreneurs can't access group health plans negotiated by employers, he turned to the individual market.

Waler: And we were looking at several thousand dollars per month to cover the family.

Fortunately, Walker found a solution besides simply not starting his business. He joined the 135,000-member Freelancers Union. Founder Sara Horowitz:

Sara Horowitz: We're the only place where freelancers can group together as if we all work for one large company and get health insurance on our own.

Walker got a family plan for $900 a month. But that group health plan isn't available to most solo entrepreneurs. It's only approved in New York State.

Elsewhere in the country, though, newfangled options are cropping up for some of the self-employed.

Gary Swart: We become the employer of record.

That's Gary Swart, CEO of California-based oDesk -- and let me explain what he means. oDesk is an online matchmaker of sorts, hooking up companies that want project work done, with independent contractors, like Web designers and freelance writers. oDesk normally takes a 10-percent cut of the contractor's fee. By paying an additional 10 percent, they can join oDesk's employee benefit plan.

Swart: We're going to take care of the taxes, the 401k plan, health care.

In essence, turning that "self-employed" contractor, into the employee of an outsourcing company. An employee with health insurance, that is.

I'm Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.
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Rather than passing legislation to give poorer people health insurance, a better way to help all working people would be to pass legislation requiring doctors, hospitals, and others in health care to post their fees. Every other company who charges a fee is required to let the customer know up front how much the cost will be. Requiring health care professionals to do this as well, will make the industry more competitive to find cures but also in their pricing, making the prices more reasonable for everyone.

I also give Freelancers Insurance a mixed review. I joined over a year ago upon a friend/colleague's recommendation. As a NY state licensed psychotherapist in private practice for the past 25 years, I have continually faced the problem of affordable health insurance. Since I rarely use allopathic medicine, I thought the Freelancers PPO2 plan would fit my needs. Unfortunately my two attempts to use them (one for an in office dermatologic procedure with an in network provider & the other for a routine annual exam) have involved "proving" that I had no pre-existing condition after which I was told that my costs were applied toward my 2009 deductible i.e. I have to pay the medical center.

I purchased Freelancers Insurance in October 2010. I had been without health insurance for 18 months. Freelancers had me in a holding pattern in search of some sort of pre-existing condition. There is none.

I went to get my eyes checked and new glasses. I went to one of their in-network providers. I purchased in-network glasses. They refuse to pay the for glaucoma tests which are required for me because my mother had glaucoma. The tests were negative but the bill is still unpaid.

I don't feel that I can use my health insurance because the investigation and search into a pre-existing condition is never over.

Additionally, they use some fraudulent practices for conducting their investigation. For instance, there took the second page of a form that I signed authorizing them to get medical records for one doctor. They attached it to a form for another doctor, whom I had not seen for two years, and sent for my medical records from the second doctor without my knowledge or consent.

So I am stuck paying for Freelancers Insurance and unable to go for even primary care. I got a flu shot from the city. I think you should do a follow-up story and check out how Freelancers Insurance employs intimidating and coercive tactics to keep people from getting healthcare. My pre-existing condition is wearing eyeglasses.

I have an LLC and moved back to NY State after being in Europe for 20 years, two years ago with my son. I had no idea how to even find Freelancers Union until someone mentioned it to me. My son went without health insurance for almost two years and I paid out of pocket the most outrageous prices in any industrialized nation I've ever lived in. I'm so glad now to be able to find a solution.

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