It was, in the words of an hapless Mississippi call center employee, “a tough pill to swallow.”
Every day, Lanycha Hall, who works for federal contractor Maximus at its Hattiesburg facility, helps people enroll in the Affordable Care Act health insurance plans.
But Hall said she couldn’t afford her own company-sponsored health insurance.
“When I realized I couldn’t afford it because my deductible was so high, I just had to take a day off because I just couldn’t focus on helping everyone when I couldn’t afford my own meds, ”she said.
Hall’s co-worker Sherry Collier said they “worked for a supplier that offers help to the general public, but we as employees cannot get the affordable insurance we need.” .
“I help people who earn less than $ 25,000 and I earn less than $ 25,000,” Collier said. “Their co-payments are around $ 25, and their premiums per month can be zero dollars, and I pay $ 4,500 for a premium per year. How can that be? It’s just totally ridiculous.
Maximus call center worker Trinity Davis said she enjoys helping people sign up for Obamacare, but her days in the business could be numbered if health care costs don’t come down. She said she was already working in the moonlight as a food delivery driver to keep herself afloat. She said she was seriously considering returning to her horrible old job because the benefits were better.
“I hung up chicken for about four years,” Davis said, using slang to describe work at a chicken processing plant. “And I don’t know if any of you have done that kind of work, it’s miserable work. It’s a hostile work environment.
Anger over expensive health insurance, coupled with other long-standing issues in the workplace, has helped fuel the Communications Workers of America’s continued campaign to organize call center workers like those employed in the Maximus installation in Hattiesburg.
Three-quarters of these workers are women and between 45 and 55 percent of the total workforce are parents, according to the CWA.
Last year, Maximus was accused by a whistleblower of endangering Hattiesburg call center workers by not following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rules by making them work under overcrowded conditions.
Part of the job is providing callers with information on the CDC’s advice on how to stay safe during a pandemic by wearing masks and respecting social distancing.
Ultimately, Maximus employees who feared working under crowded conditions were allowed to work from home and given the equipment to do so.
Employees at the Maximus call center “have helped millions of Americans access affordable health care,” said Sanchioni Butler of the AFL-CIO of Mississippi in a video prepared by the CWA. “They are struggling to afford theirs. Let it sink for a minute.
In response, a spokesperson for Maximus said that when the company took over the call center in 2018, it inherited an expensive health insurance contract that expired in December and was replaced by a much plan. cheaper.
“Employees can choose between a plan that has an annual deductible of $ 1,500 with an employee contribution of $ 75 per paycheck,” Eileen Rivera said in an email. “We also offer another plan with no monthly premium and with a deductible of $ 4,500.”
Rivera also denied that Maximus doubled the franchise amid the pandemic.
“The fact is, and contrary to these assertions, Maximus in fact lowered the annual deductible of $ 2,500 under the previous legacy plan to $ 1,500, ”Rivera said.
The amounts cited by Rivera are for individuals, not families, according to the Maximus Benefits Guide for 2022 viewed by NBC News.
There are two plan options: the basic plan and the buyback plan. One has a lower deductible but higher employee contributions. The Basic plan has a deductible of $ 4,500 for individuals, but that amount doubles to $ 9,000 for families. Once this goal is met, employees must assume 30 percent of the additional costs until they reach the “annual maximum spend” of $ 12,000. In the other plan, the individual deductible is $ 1,500 and $ 3,000 for families.
“Once you reach the maximum amount, the plan will pay for 100% of your health care services for the rest of the year,” the plan said.
Bi-weekly payroll deductions for families under the Basic Plan are $ 574.77 and they are $ 791.13 for the Buy-Back Plan.
Only one of the Maximus call center workers surveyed by NBC News is on an individual plan, and all three have chronic health conditions that make affordable insurance essential.
Collier, a 58-year-old married mother with two grown children, suffers from diabetes. Hall is 48 years old, married with three children and legally blind.
Davis, 43, is unmarried and has no children. But she is diabetic and said the cost of her prescriptions, as part of the Maximus plan, has skyrocketed in recent years from $ 30 to $ 400 per month, and she only earns $ 11 an hour. .
Maximus, in a directive to workers in the plan overview, also made it clear that employees essentially had no choice but to purchase his health insurance.
“You will only be able to opt out of medical coverage if you have acceptable medical coverage from another source or person, such as your spouse,” he said.
Collier said one of the side effects of her diabetes is leg pain, for which her doctor referred her to a specialist. That co-payment was $ 125, she said.
“I was sent for an x-ray, and it cost me an additional $ 325,” she said. “I just received two invoices. I can’t afford to pay them, but I can’t afford not to go to the doctor.
Being on Maximus’ insurance forced Collier to consider other unproven options for lowering her blood sugar, she said.
“I may be studying self-medication with apple cider vinegar,” Collier said.
The jury is still out on whether apple cider vinegar actually helps people with diabetes.
Hall, who has worked for the company since 2018, became eligible for Medicare in 2020. She said she was getting an injection in her right eye every 30 days that costs $ 1,500.
Under Medicare, Hall said she could afford it. But under the Maximus plan, any worker on Medicare or Medicaid must forgo it and sign up for the company plan.
Hall said she had been warned that she would make a “double deduction” if she opted for Medicare or attempted to enroll her own family in a plan through the Affordable Care Act Marketplace.
“It’s ridiculous,” Hall said. “With my income, I should pay little or no premium or get Medicaid because my salary is considered below the poverty line. I certainly cannot afford family coverage through Maximus.
Hall said she spoke to her supervisors and the company’s human resources representative about her predicament last year.
” Without help. I emailed Bruce Caswell asking for help, ”she said.
Caswell is the president of the company.
“Sir. Caswell responded by apologizing and putting me in touch with the person negotiating for Maximus insurance,” Hall said. “She told me there was nothing she could do to help me with this. at the moment, but that she would be aware of my concerns for the year 2021 ahead. “
Caswell could not be reached for comment, but Rivera confirmed that Hall sent him an email and that a member of the company’s human resources team called Hall on July 13, 2020 and “had spent time explaining the benefits to him.
Karen Pollitz, a senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation and expert on health reform and private insurance, declined to comment specifically on the insurance Maximus offers its employees.
But in an email, Pollitz said under current rules, people who are offered a business plan are not eligible for ACA grants unless their insurance is unaffordable or inadequate. .
“A $ 4,000 deductible does not make a policy inadequate under ACA rules,” Pollitz wrote. “If the maximum plan amount is $ 8,700 per year or less (double for a family policy), and the policy covers hospitalization and doctor’s visits, then it passes the minimum value test.”
That said, “below these thresholds, it is certainly possible that workers at Maximus or other employers could, in numbers, get a better deal through a subsidized ACA market plan,” Pollitz wrote. “But for now, this ‘firewall’ blocks their eligibility for ACA market grants. ”
As part of the Build Back Better plan proposed by President Joe Biden, there is a provision that would slightly reduce the cost for workers enrolled in company-sponsored plans, but it would not eliminate the firewall, Pollitz said. .
“I love my job. I love doing what I do. I love being able to help beneficiaries,” Davis said. But she said that the reassurance that Maximus provides to workers who help people enroll to ACA plans is “a slap in the face”.