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Health insurance becomes collateral damage for workers in the government shutdown

Jazz Fexton was hired as a representative at the IRS toward the end of 2018. Her health insurance was being processed when the government closed.

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In limbo and without coverage, she was looking at a nearly $1,000 out-of-pocket cost for her anti-depressant, Celexa. She didn’t have the money. She weened herself off the medication, first cutting her remaining pills in half, then quarters, until she was out of them.

“I was dizzy, things looked brighter to me,” Fexton, 32, said. “I was having very strange symptoms.”

Health insurance for government employees has become another casualty of the longest federal government shutdown in history.

Government employees are guaranteed coverage throughout shutdowns, but new hires or those who recently made changes to their plan could find themselves caught in the bureaucratic slowdown.

And if the gridlock persists, unpaid federal workers could be billed directly for their share of health care costs, which are normally subtracted from their paychecks.

If they can’t afford those bills, their coverage could be terminated.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners released a statement explaining that the shutdown could result in financial hardships for some people and encouraging insurance companies “to exercise judicious efforts to assist these policyholders and work with them to make sure that their insurance policy does not lapse.”

The situation is more dire still for federal contractors, some of whom are receiving notice already that their health insurance has expired or will do so within the next few weeks. There were some 4.1 million government contractors in 2017, according to Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University.

Andrew Leyder, a data analyst on contract at the Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C., received the bad news in an email from his boss this week: “After negotiating with CareFirst for weeks since this very painful government shutdown, we regret to announce that, due to lack of payment, our group health insurance was terminated on Thursday.”

He’s now scrambling to figure out how he’s going to pay for his anti-depressant medication, Wellbutrin.

“If I have to pay out-of-pocket it will cost me about $200,” Leyder, 27, said. “That would be half of one week’s unemployment check.”

Fushcia Hoover, a National Research Council postdoctoral fellow at the EPA, was informed this week that her pay and health insurance will come to an end this month. Her contract was up, and there’s no one at the EPA to renew it.

“It was so late in the month to be notified of that,” Hoover, 31, said. “I’ve been scrambling to figure out how to pay my bills.”

She has just $2,000 in savings, and birth control, asthma and eczema treatments to cover.

“I use my health insurance quite a bit,” she said. “Even just the idea that I’m not covered if something were to happen to me, it’s really nerve-racking.”

Tom O’Connor, president of the FBI Agents Association, said members are worried about having to pay for their supplemental insurance during the shutdown.

While Bureau employees are guaranteed health insurance, O’Connor said, they could be on the hook for their dental and vision insurance costs. These expenses are typically taken out of their paychecks, which are now on hold.

“On top of their mortgage, car loans and student loans, these agents are now going to have to start to pay for that supplemental insurance,” O’Connor said, adding that some will probably forgo the protections.

“Think about not getting a paycheck for a month, with no end in sight,” he said.

After the IRS called more employees back to work, Fexton finally received her new health insurance card in the mail this week. Still, her experience has left her on edge.

“By continuing this shutdown, they’re endangering the lives of their employees,” she said.