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July 19. 2014 7:33PM

Manchester woman can't get deceased husband's name off health plan


Since the death of her husband, Martin in May, Debra Jacobsen of Manchester has been trying to get his name dropped from the health insurance policy they purchased on the health insurance marketplace. It's been anything but easy. (COURTESY)

A newly widowed Manchester woman has found her grief compounded by an unexpected challenge: Getting her late husband's name removed from the health insurance plan they bought on the federal Health Insurance Marketplace.

It's been two months since her husband's death, and Debra Jacobsen repeatedly has been told that a "technical error block" is holding up the process of changing her Anthem insurance coverage to an individual plan.

"Something they say is a very simple, life-changing event, and they can't fix it," she said.

Martin Jacobsen, 61, died on May 15. In late February, he had slipped and fallen while shoveling, sending him to the hospital with a fractured rib and punctured lung. There, X-rays revealed undiagnosed lung cancer that had spread throughout his body.

Debra Jacobsen works full time for a small counseling center, but it doesn't provide health insurance. Her husband had been an IT systems administrator, but he was laid off in 2008 when the recession hit and had struggled to find work since.

They were grateful that they had signed up for an Anthem health insurance plan through the new federal marketplace when it came online last Jan. 1. "If it weren't for the fact that we had this opportunity to get this insurance, he wouldn't have gotten the care he needed," she said.

The doctors told Martin he had six months to a year to live. "He was gone in two months," his wife said.

After Martin's death, Jacobsen began the painful process of settling his affairs. His illness had progressed so rapidly that he hadn't had time to take care of all that needed doing, including telling his wife the passwords needed to get access to bills he always paid online. She is still trying to guess some of them.

And she called Anthem to let the company know her husband was dead and ask it to remove his name from the policy and adjust the premiums.

"They said, 'Oh don't worry, it's a simple change of life event. Call the marketplace, tell them what happened, and they'll give you a rate,'" she said.

But it's been anything but simple. Every time Jacobsen called the marketplace number, she was told the system was coming up with a "technical error."

Her case was referred, first to the resolution department at the exchange, then to the "technical blocking department," Jacobsen said.

She started calling everyone else she could think of, including the New Hampshire Insurance Department, federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and offices of the congressional delegation. She's gotten plenty of sympathy, she said, but no one seems to be able to fix the problem.

"I just don't get why they can't do something as simple as cancel a policy and give you a single-person rate based on my income, which I've given to them time and time again," she said. "How can you not be set up for this? I can't be the only one."

Courtney Jenkins, public affairs officer for CMS in Boston, said the agency "has been and remains in very close contact with Ms. Jacobsen as we work to resolve her situation. "

Danielle Kronk Barrick, director of communications for the state Insurance Department, said she couldn't speak about Jacobsen's case because of privacy concerns. However, she said, department staff are available to assist residents who have issues with their insurance coverage, which could involve contacting the insurer or CMS.

Meanwhile, she said, "We always advise consumers with issues to continue to pay their premiums to ensure their plans are not canceled."

Jacobsen stopped paying the $288 monthly premiums in June, expecting the issue to be resolved and her premium to be lowered.

She recently was told she has to pay the June, July and August payments or her policy will be canceled; she'll get a rebate once the problem is straightened out.

"It doesn't make any sense," she said. "I'm paying for somebody who no longer exists."

"What if they never straighten it out? Honestly, I don't have a lot of confidence in them right now."

Christopher Dugan, public relations director for Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in New Hampshire, said Jacobsen need not worry.

"She will not be billed until this is resolved and her policy will not be canceled," he said.

Lisa Kaplan Howe, policy director at the advocacy group New Hampshire Voices for Health, said she hasn't heard of such a problem.

"It sounds like a glitch," Kaplan Howe said. "Part of this is growing pains in the first year, and there are things that maybe weren't adequately put into place to deal with issues like these."

Still, she said, "It should be an easy fix you can do online or over the phone. It should not be something that requires multiple phone calls."

The latest call from CMS brought a new wrinkle: Jacobsen has to contact the Internal Revenue Service to see whether she'll be considered married or single when she files her 2014 taxes. If she's single, she was told, she may no longer qualify for a tax credit - even though her annual salary is just $26,000.

"I have done nothing but get punished since this poor man lost his life," she said. "It's endless."

Consumers with concerns about their insurance plans can contact the state Insurance Department at 1-800-852-3416 or consumerservices@ins.nh.gov.


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