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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Another Aspect Of Insurance To Consider

Recently, I wrote about my experience with health insurance and my concerns about how the laws in the US may change.  As I wrote previously, a lot can go wrong with getting and maintaining health insurance in the US.  My concerns mostly centered around coverage for pre-existing conditions and acquiring coverage that is not provided by an employer because those were the two issues I had thought about the most.  However, when I read this article today, I realized I had neglected to mention another very important issue:  Obamacare's ban on lifetime coverage limits.  The reason why I hadn't thought as much about this issue is simply that I have been very fortunate.  I have never been in danger of my health care expenses reaching some arbitrary limit.

Michelle, the mother interviewed in this article, is one of my colleagues.  I highly encourage everyone to read her family's story.  In a nutshell, her son, who has very complex medical challenges, was born right after the ban on lifetime health insurance coverage limits was enacted.  Had they been subjected to lifetime coverage limits, they would have faced ruinous medical expenses.  Now, of course, the future of all of Obamacare's provisions is very uncertain, including the ban on lifetime coverage limits.

This is an issue that could potentially affect us all.  Life is uncertain.  Just as the door is always open for wonderful things to happen for us, so too is the door open for the most difficult of challenges.  I think societies can be judged based on how they treat their most vulnerable members.  I hope going forward that we will continue to protect those people with complex and expensive medical needs.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Life's Little Triumphs: An Idea From The Internet Worked Out

I experienced a perfect storm of first world annoyances recently:

1.  I really dislike packing my lunch, but I do so anyway for financial and health considerations.  Oh, and because the only place within walking distance of my office where I can buy lunch is a decidedly lackluster cafeteria.

2.  Since I am now taking classes two nights a week, I have less time and energy for pretty much everything.  Making lunch sounds appealing neither when I get home at night, nor the next morning when I wake up exhausted.

Something was going to have to give.  I eat a lot and become "hangry" pretty easily, so I need to pack something substantial.  Now more than ever, that substantial lunch also needed to be healthy; my metabolism is not what it used to be.  Oh, and I'm somewhat of a food snob and likely to dislike frozen meals that could be stockpiled in the office fridge.

Something made me think of those mason jar salads whose pictures seem to be all over the internet.  For anyone who hasn't seen these, the idea is, well, that you pack salads in mason jars that can be shaken out onto a plate when you're ready to eat them.  You take advantage of the vertical space in the jar to pack all of your salad ingredients in layers; dressing goes at the very bottom, and things that will become soggy and gross if left to sit in dressing for too long (like salad greens) go at the very top.  If you consider ingredient placement carefully, you can make several mason jar salads at once on Saturday or Sunday and then eat them throughout the week.

The idea seemed appealing in theory.  But then again, haven't we all seen those wonderful photo spreads of the messy disasters that result from people trying ideas from Pinterest?  I was skeptical.  But I had three nice large jars that previously held salsa, so I thought I didn't have much to lose by trying.  I made packed three salads in jars on a Sunday, and decided I would eat one on Monday, one on Wednesday, and one on Friday to see if they really did remain palatable throughout the week.

To my astonishment, all three salads that week tasted great. Also, the salads were very filling--I didn't have to pack lots of extra things to keep my hunger-related crankiness at bay.

I'm now on week four of eating three mason jar salads per week, which in my mind gives me enough experience to start giving out tips.  These are the conclusions I've reached so far:

1.  I won't lie:  It's a bit of a procedure to put these things together.  I think of it as taking an annoyance that is usually spread out over several evenings, and cramming it into a portion of a weekend day.  That being said, preparing three is barely any more trouble than preparing one.  I think this is the sort of lunch that you have to either prepare multiples of, or not at all.

2.  Unless you want a bland salad, be sure to use plenty of dressing and/or other ingredients that impart a lot of flavor (cheese, olives, etc.).

3.  I've tried both quinoa and brown rice for the grain layer in the salad.  Quinoa tastes better here.

4.  Adding some protein and fat will help you stay full for longer.  I've added avocado, canned tuna, olives, feta cheese, and pumpkin seeds in various combinations.

5.  Personally, I think some ingredients are best added the day you plan to eat the salad.  It's hard for me to imagine avocado improving after being cut up and sitting in a jar for several days, for instance.  Use your best judgement here.

6.  If you have somewhere at work where you can wash dishes, it's probably worth just keeping a plate in your office for salad-shaking purposes.

I doubt that the success of my mason jar salad experiment will set me on a slippery slope of trying Pinterest ideas, but who knows?  If our apartment ever becomes a sparkling clean haven of seasonally appropriate crafts, I'll know how it all started.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Darker Side Of Nature

"Eat or be eaten!"
As Scott and I were walking through a residential section of our town today, we spotted this beautiful hawk by a small playground.  We walked over for a closer look, trying to be quiet, and taking turns trying to get good pictures.  We were surprised at how close we were able to get, until we realized the hawk was standing guard over some hapless dead mammal (a squirrel, I think).  I imagine we had just missed a scene worthy of a nature program on TV.  I enjoyed getting such a good look at the hawk, but it was a reminder of how much of nature involves one critter eating another.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Trump's Executive Order On Refugees

Anyone who knows me well and/or has been following my blog probably has an inkling about how upset I am about Trump's executive order banning the admission of all refugees to the US for 120 days and banning the entry of any citizen of Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, or Iran for 90 days.  This move is both discriminatory and downright mean-spirited.  Can you imagine having fled your homeland, having spent years in limbo, finally having the chance to settle somewhere, and then having that yanked away from you at the last minute?  Even the circumstances that are less extreme are painful to contemplate.  As an American who has both studied and worked abroad, I can only imagine how disruptive it would have been to my life if one of my host countries had suddenly decided not to let any more Americans in when I was on the cusp of moving there.

If we're serious as a nation about keeping people safe and saving lives, we have some pretty obvious places to start that don't involve discrimination based on national origin:  deaths from car accidents (more than 32,000 in 2013), firearm deaths (over 33,000 in 2014), and opioid overdoses (over 33,000 in 2015).

The idea of discriminating based on nationality is ridiculous to begin with.  People are people the world over.  I have traveled quite a bit and have met wonderful (and not-so-wonderful) people everywhere I have gone.  But I could say the same thing for people in the United States.  In fact, I distinctly remember some very notorious homegrown terrorists who were not Muslim:  the Unabomber, Timothy McVeigh, and Eric Rudolph all come to mind.  Can you imagine if American-born white men had come under additional scrutiny because all three of those domestic terrorists were all white men?  Or if we had just declared a moratorium on people having children since our society had raised all three of them?

To be clear, I am against having any sort of list that discriminates against certain nationalities.  But I could also poke plenty of holes in the list of seven countries that has been chosen.  If we are interested in looking at past terrorist performance on US soil by nationality, let's consider the 9/11 attacks.  Fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were from Saudi Arabia.  Notice that Saudi Arabia is not on the list of seven countries.  Again, I don't want to discriminate against the Saudis, either, but I find this fact interesting.

Here's another interesting hole:  I think Americans are most worried about ISIS and al-Qaida when they worry about foreign terrorism.  Both of those terrorist groups are Sunni, while Iran, a member of the list of seven, is predominantly Shiite.  I would be interested to know why it made the list, aside from general feelings some people have that it is a "problem" nation.

Nicholas Kristof has wonderful column today in which he discusses previous instances of fear-mongering against different groups of people in the US and his father's experience coming to the US.  It is useful to remember that we are a nation of immigrants and that at some point in the past, someone took a chance and allowed our families in. 

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Back To School At My Age? The Very Idea!

I'm an introvert, so I need a lot of time on my own to recharge from life.  As a result, I'm very protective of my free time, and generally wary of long term commitments that will get in the way of my doing whatever I happen to feel like.

So in a way, it seems crazy that--on top of working full time--I applied for a program, signed up for a fall semester class, and then signed up for two spring semester classes.  I must be a glutton for punishment.

The seed was planted when I was offered my current job and I learned that I would be eligible for tuition remission at the University of Maryland.  At the time, I thought this would just be a benefit on paper because there was no way I was going to stress myself out attending classes on top of working.

But then I started to hear that some of my colleagues were doing just that.  And I started to think that maybe I should give it a try.  I'd been thinking for some time that I'd like to expand my career options, but the timing never seemed right.  And I started to think that the time when you're able to take classes for free may be about as good of timing as any.

So I started taking hearing and speech classes in the fall.  I signed up for one class as a trial run.  The classes I want to take are being offered as a package in the evenings, specifically for the benefit of old grouches with jobs during the day non-traditional students.  The good thing about evening classes is that I don't have to rearrange my work day or risk missing important meetings.  The bad part is pretty predictable:  At the end of a day of work, I just want to go home.

It was hard to get into the right frame of mind in the fall.  At first, every Tuesday evening when class met, I asked myself what I was doing and why I was creating extra work for myself.  Then I started to wonder why I couldn't just learn the material on my own and then take some sort of placement test, as is common with math and foreign language classes.

Gradually, my attitude started to improve.  I realized that even though I probably could have learned the material on my own, taking a class gave me the structure I needed to stay motivated when I was busy with other things.  It also occurred to me that many of my classmates also had jobs, but unlike me, had to work farther from the university and without the benefit of free tuition. 

Spring semester started yesterday, and I had my first class this evening.  I am sorry to see the end of winter break.  Even after I went back to work after the holidays, I was enjoying having evenings free of classes, studying, and homework.  On the other hand, taking classes makes me feel like I'm making progress in life--after all, once you get credit for a class, it's like a box checked off.  On the way to checking off those two boxes this semester, though, I'm sure I will be taking a lot of deep breaths and reminding myself often of why it's a good idea to do this.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

My Health Insurance Story

Having a health insurance story is sort of a US thing.  I think most other countries' health care systems are more streamlined, with longer histories of providing universal, or at least near-universal, coverage.  I remember talking about this issue with some European colleagues when we were in Kazakhstan.  They knew enough about US domestic policy to know that there were problems and controversies in our health care system, but they had never fully considered the ramifications of being a US citizen without health insurance.

Every American has a health insurance story of some kind.  Some people's stories are blessedly straightforward and uneventful.  It is very possible, for instance, to be covered by a parent's health insurance until you graduate from college, get a job with great benefits when you graduate, and stay at that job until you retire.  Other people's stories are straightforward for sadder reasons, as it is also possible to have a job that does not offer benefits of any kind and to simultaneously make too much money to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to buy a private insurance plan.  With all the talk recently of repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA, aka "Obamacare"), I had been thinking of writing about my own health insurance saga for a long time.  Today, when I saw in the Washington Post that 18 million people will lose their health insurance in the first year if the ACA is repealed without a replacement, I decided it was time to start writing.  Here are the major milestones of my health insurance saga so far as a US citizen:

  • Ages 0-18: Covered by the health insurance my dad got through his employer!  Not every child is this lucky, so this was very good fortune right off the bat.
  • College:  Still covered by my dad's health insurance!
  • Graduate school:  And still covered by my dad's health insurance!  Currently, under the ACA, children can stay on their parents' health insurance plans until the age of 26.  Previously, rules varied.  In my case, I was allowed to remain on his plan until one of the following things happened;  (1) I turned 26, (2) I got married, or (3) I finished or left school.  As it turns out, I did all three things within less than a year, but turning 26 was what happened first.  If I had needed to, I could have purchased health insurance through my university, but it would have taken a significant chunk out of my carefully-budgeted grad school stipend.
  • First job out of graduate school:  I moved to Madison, WI right after successfully defending my MA thesis.  I didn't technically graduate until December of that year, so had some time to frantically look for work before turning 26 that October.  Hard as I tried, it took some time for me to find a job at all, and once I did, it did not offer any benefits.  My parents generously offered to cover private insurance premiums for me until I could get insurance by some other means.  I applied for coverage with a plan that was highly rated in Consumer Reports.  They ultimately covered me, but not before one of their representatives called me to ask follow-up questions from my health questionnaire.  Also, although I was not planning to become pregnant at that time, I was taken aback to notice that this plan provided no benefits for prenatal care or delivery unless you purchased a maternity rider.  Given the high number of unintended pregnancies in the US, this seemed like a disaster from the standpoint of healthy mothers and babies.  It also seemed like a slap in the face for people to potentially pay for this additional coverage and then not end up being able to use it.
  • Marriage:  Covered by Scott's health insurance plan!  His plan was from his university, and it covered us through the remainder of our time in Wisconsin and during a research fellowship Scott had in Israel after that.  
  • First job with benefits:  Shortly after our return to the US from Israel, I got my first job that offered benefits.  I had a number of plans to choose from, and ultimately picked the PPO with the lowest premiums.  I had a longstanding suspicion of HMO's after working in a pharmacy for a few summers during college and seeing some of our customers struggle with their HMO's rejecting medicines of different kinds, so I decided a PPO would be better.  I chose the one with the lowest premiums because I figured Scott and I were young and healthy.
  • Sickness strikes:  Three or so years into the job mentioned above, I started to develop odd symptoms.  I had trouble swallowing.  Then I had body aches all the time.  Then I was always exhausted, no matter how much sleep I got.  Finally, my heart started racing at random times.  When your heart does something unexpected, it brings on a lot of tests.  I had multiple EKG's, a CT scan, and an echocardiogram.  I had to wear an event monitor (basically like a portable EKG that you can use to record what your heart is doing when you feel it doing something out of the ordinary) for a couple of weeks.  I had a multitude of blood tests, and when those started to provide clues, a thyroid ultrasound.  All these tests are expensive, so it was lucky that I had good health insurance.  It was also lucky that I had adequate sick leave and didn't end up losing my job due to the time I had to take off.
         In the end, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto's disease.  This was a better diagnosis than some of          things doctors were considering, but it put me squarely in the dreaded pre-existing conditions
         camp.  No amount of participating in triathlons, eating goji berries, or meditating at sunrise
         will make this disease go away.  Prior to the full implementation of the ACA, private insurance
         plans could have denied me coverage because of this disease.
  • A plunge into the unknown:  A couple years after my diagnosis, I left my job.  This was in part to help Scott pursue a career opportunity, and in part because I had become increasingly unhappy at work.  After leaving that job, I was able to pursue teaching, a new line of work for me.  My new job did not provide me with benefits, but I was able to get health insurance under Scott's plan.  Neither of our jobs at that time were "stable," but I had the courage to leave my previous job and try something new in part because, due to the ACA's prohibition on discriminating on the basis of preexisting conditions, I knew I would be able to get private health insurance if I had to.
  • Kazakhstan:  Our next jobs took us to Kazakhstan, where we were promised free global health insurance.  Unfortunately, in our employer's world view, the US was mostly excluded from this globe; our health insurance would cover only the first 28 days of any visit to the US and only for emergency care.  We knew some of our visits would last longer than 28 days, and I needed somewhat routine care anyway, so we needed to supplement this coverage somehow.  We consulted with an expert, who told us that in NC (where we based ourselves during our time abroad), we couldn't sign up for ACA insurance unless we were physically present in the state for at least 6 months out of the year.  We opted for COBRA coverage from Scott's previous employer.  This was very expensive, and would only last for a maximum of 18 months, but for our peace of mind, we were lucky to have the option.
  • Almost signed up for ACA insurance:  When we returned from Kazakhstan, our 18 months of COBRA coverage was drawing to a close.  We were in a race to either find a job with benefits for at least one of us, or sign up for ACA insurance.  We consulted with the same expert who, upon learning that we were getting job interviews, advised us to wait as long as we could.  Losing our insurance would have been a qualifying event to allow us to sign up outside the open period, so it made sense to wait until closer to the end of our COBRA coverage to see if either of us got a job.
  • A new job with benefits:  One of those interviews panned out for me!  We were slated to lose our COBRA coverage on March 1; I started working on February 29.
Certain parts of my story--most notably moving to Kazakhstan--might be somewhat unusual.  But other parts aren't.  Anyone could have trouble finding a job with benefits, especially when they are young and lacking in job experience.  Also, anyone, no matter how well they take care of themselves, could end up sick or injured and developing a "pre-existing condition."  In some cases these sicknesses and injuries lead to people losing jobs, and therefore losing employer-provided health insurance.  In other cases, they may prevent people from working in the first place.  For that matter, anyone could be laid-off and lose their employer-provided health insurance that way.

I've had advantages that not everybody has had.  I have educated, employed parents who kept me continuously covered on their health insurance until I turned 26.  I have a graduate degree, which opens up opportunities to certain jobs that provide benefits.  Scott and I have been married for ten and a half years, and we have added one another to our employer-provided health insurance during that time.  In spite of that, I spent several months on a private health insurance plan before getting married, and we almost signed up for ACA insurance in 2016 before I started working at my current job.

There has been a lot of talk recently about repealing the ACA.  There has been talk about replacing it, too, though I have yet to see a concrete plan for how that will happen.  Trump has promised how wonderful the replacement will be.  I hope he is right, not just for the sake of the 18 million people who stand to lose their health insurance right away, but also for the sake of everyone who might need it in the future.  Anyone can experience bad luck, and I hope that people who do can at least have health insurance.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Using Two Large Focal Beads In One Necklace

Sometimes interesting beads sit in my collection for a long time before I figure out the perfect way to use them.  I was given the pair of red patterned African trade beads that you can see in the necklace picture many years ago.  I liked them, but I had no idea how to use them.  They are large and somewhat heavy, which means that if you string them on the wrong part of the necklace, they will make the whole thing hang funny.  They are long, and the ends are not tapered.  This means that smaller beads may be visually swallowed up next to them.  Their holes are very large, which means that smaller beads may be literally swallowed up by them.  So they posed some challenges.  I had originally thought of making two separate chokers out of them, and maybe giving one as a gift.  But I thought that would be too easy and predictable; plus, my selfish nature took over, and I wanted both of the beads for myself.

I ultimately decided the beads would hang best in the front of center of any necklace.  That pointed to a double strand necklace with one bead on each strand, rather than, say, a long single strand necklace with a bead on each side.  I decided I wanted to incorporate bead weaving, but wanted the strength and security of beading wire.  So I stitched four seed bead tubes (herringbone stitch, if anyone is interested).  The two "top" tubes are shorter than the two "bottom" tubes; that is what creates the curve in the necklace.  On each side of the necklace, I partially stitched together the long and short tubes.  That is a detail that isn't very obvious in the picture, but I think it helps to maintain the necklace's curve.

Once I had done all of the seed bead work, I strung everything on beading wire.  I string some small seed beads inside both the African trade beads and the beaded tubes to help keep them centered on the wire.  The blue beads I strung right next to the African trade beads are large enough that they don't disappear into either the African trade beads or the beaded tubes.

Overall, I'm very pleased with how it turned out.  The one thing I'm not as happy about is the clasp.  I couldn't find any two-strand clasps with an appropriately rustic look, and decided my best option in terms of appearance was a toggle clasp.  Two-strand toggle clasps are horribly fiddly when you try to clasp them (I had originally thought it was just this necklace, but I made another, very different necklace with a two-strand toggle clasp recently, and it's nearly as bad).  So if I ever use that type of clasp again, I'm going to be very careful that everything near the bar portion of the clasp is tiny and/or flexible so that it can pass through the toggle as easily as possible.

I'm happy when beads I've had for a while finally find a home.  After recently organizing my collection, I concluded that quite a few beads need happy homes.  With luck, I'll find time to make that happen more often.  I got stuck in a busy rut in the fall and felt too overwhelmed to start anything.  I'm cranky when I don't have a project to work on, though, so I hope my recent reorganization will make it easier for me to find the things I want and start projects I can work on for at least a few minutes a day.