He makes just $10,000 a year as a clinical professional counselor, so Morgan Kinney decided to spend what little extra money he had this year paying down student debt rather than buying health insurance.
The 31-year-old Denver man figured he would have no choice but to buy insurance next year to comply with the new federal health insurance mandate, so last month he entered his personal information into the online calculator of the Colorado insurance exchange.
Yet instead of a cost estimate, he received a rejection notice saying he was not eligible to shop on the exchange.
"I was telling my girlfriend, 'This thing is broken, it won't let me in,' and she looked and said, 'I think it's because you're supposed to be on Medicaid.' I said, 'No, that's for poor people.' Well, sure enough, that was me."
Colorado is one of at least 24 states expanding Medicaid access for adults under the Affordable Care Act. In Colorado, that means single adults who earned less than $15,400 last year will have access to Medicaid. Childless adults in the state currently qualify for Medicaid only if they make less than $95 a month. Colorado estimates about 160,000 people will be added to state Medicaid rolls under the new guidelines.
Medicaid expansion is a major plank of the administration's plan to get every American covered by health insurance. But the U.S. Supreme Court last year limited the federal government's ability to penalize states that decide against the expansion, leading to a patchwork of Medicaid eligibility standards. The Congressional Budget Office has projected 11 million Americans will get coverage through the Medicaid expansion by 2022.
Kinney said he feels incredibly fortunate to live in a state where he will receive basic coverage through the government program. He has seen firsthand just how expense medical expenses can be.
He broke his leg last April in a car accident heading home from a cross-country skiing trip. But the other driver was at fault, sparing Kinney from having to pay the hefty medical bills for his treatment.
Kinney said he is thankful every time he sees the tab for his care: $500 for the ambulance ride; $150 just to consult with a doctor by telephone; $100 for a pill.
"Even though I know I'm going to get my bills paid, it's incredibly scary watching the number of zeros on the letters that roll in saying these are the bills we owe," said Kinney, who is working part-time while his girlfriend finishes medical school.
He is just beginning his career with a startup counseling company and expects to increase his earnings significantly in the years ahead.
For now, though, Kinney said he is happy to be caught in the Medicaid safety net because Colorado opted for the expansion. The cost will be covered entirely by the federal government for the first few years, with that share eventually falling to 90 percent.
He wants a checkup and maybe a trip to the dentist.
"Until now, I've used delusion and denial to pretend something wouldn't actually happen to my health," Kinney said. "So now it's nice to think about actually having coverage. It didn't click when I saw all the 'Obamacare' stuff on the news; it was just people yelling at each other. ... It was just politics. Now it feels real."