Planet Jeffro

Product Owner for Grockit (a Kaplan company).
Email me at jeffnovich [] gmail

Companies/Products I created:
Patient Communicator | half patient portal half CRM for doctors (was part of the Blueprint Health accelerator)
Poachbase | find talent at floundering startups
Fare/Share | iOS app for sharing taxis
VocabSushi | learn vocab from news
Cnvrge | meet people via SMS
Supermarket Classroom | teach your child while shopping
Poorsquare.us | foursquare for the 99%
IngeniousOwl.com | online SAT prep
Recent Tweets @jeffnovich
Posts I Like
Who I Follow
*Originally published on the CVC Blog.
We had our CVC incubation event on March 4th (meant to post this sooner) and the ideas and pitches were absolutely fascinating spanning from sex toys to bottled water to fashion big data. One of the exciting things about CVC Incubation is virtually everyone who pitches is met with immediate offers from the group for introductions to potentially helpful people. “Oh, I know the (decision-maker) of (a relevant company or organization), did you want me to connect you?” I’m proud to be part of such a well-connected, generous and friendly group. We’ll be doing it again in a few months.
Here’s a roundup of the presenters:
  • Peter pitched More the merrier, a sort of “kickstarter for events” in which event organizers set the number of people they want to attend and attendees are offered various incentives to RSVP and get additional people to RSVP.  The site is built and has already been used by 3 events. There is a “scanning party” event coming up that I’d love to go to but will be out of town. Peter shared his experiences that short videos worked well and that he was essentially offering a “concierge” service behind the scenes to better understand his users.

  • Camille, a CBS alum, arrived with bottles of her All Beauty Water, a zero-calorie drink with vitamins for your skin. We had a Shark Tank moment where we passed around cups and sampled the drink as she spoke. (It was very good!) She shared her story about identifying an opportunity in the beverage market and working on this while holding a full time job. All Beauty is already in 12 locations including our beloved West Side Market and she’s looking for two things: introductions to distributors (gym owners, whole foods, Garden of Eden), and influencers who could do reviews.

  • Alex, who has a background in psychology and consumer goods, but has had her eye on being a sex therapist, shared a more risque product concept she’s been working on: wearable tech for couples. She taught us about the “orgasm gap,” that in committed relationships, women don’t orgasm nearly as much as men. She thinks she has the solution with a very small, hands-free, personal stimulation product for women to use during sex. She thinks the market has a lot of devices for women that tend to be toys on the bigger side and can be an ego bash for men. We all blushed a little during this discussion, a bit more when Alex displayed a cartoon vagina on her iPad! And a bit more when, in response to a question about how the device would fit women of differing shapes and sizes, Alex described that its sides would be adjustable, “like a ninja climbing a chimney”. Alex is looking for a hardware co-founder who understands how to prototype toys. She has funds to pay or can offer sweat equity.

  • Rabina, another CBS alum, shared her (future) problem of finding high quality lessons for her two young children. She wants to help them develop their curiosity but wants to locate specific kinds of instructors, such as ones who specialize in children of a certain age or ability. Searches for “piano lessons” often come up with a laundry list of results and busy moms (she’s one) don’t have time to talk to providers. Summer camp would be another common pain point. She imagined a “yelp for kids activities” that might be curated by parents.



  • Io (pronounced “eeh- oh”), who was preparing to leave for Africa in a week, discussed his idea for a waste-management company in West Africa, similar to RecycleBank (founded by a fellow CBS alum). Getting people involved would be a challenge, but the payoff, such as organic fertilizer, can save a lot of money.

  • Jade is one of three co-founders of a 7-month-old startup called Style Sage, which looks at social signals to determine trends in fashion. She identified four “make or break” factors for fashion businesses: designs, pricing, quantity and location. They’re regularly indexing 30 million products with 15 million photos to try to make sense of various indicators and determine things like predicting seasonal trends with confidence. She’s looking for connections to retail people and brands.

  • Leo, a French engineering Masters student, pitched his idea for a crowdfunding platform for renewable energy projects in France. He identified a way in which people could invest just a few hundred dollars and fund energy projects (that the country would subsidize) and enjoy sizeable returns

I went on amazon and bought all the top books on baby sleep and development. I read through them all, as well as several blogs and sleep websites. I gathered lots of advice.

You shouldn’t sleep train at all, before a year, before 6 months, or before 4 months, but if you wait too late, your baby will never be able to sleep without you. College-aged children never need to be nursed, rocked, helped to sleep, so don’t worry about any bad habits. Nursing, rocking, singing, swaddling, etc to sleep are all bad habits and should be stopped immediately. White noise will help them fall asleep. White noise, heartbeart sounds, etc, don’t work. Naps should only be taken in the bed, never in a swing, carseat, stroller, or when worn. Letting them sleep in the carseat or swing will damage their skulls. If your baby has trouble falling asleep in the bed, put them in a swing, carseat, stroller, or wear them.

Put the baby in a nursery, bed in your room, in your bed. Cosleeping is the best way to get sleep, except that it can kill your baby, so never, ever do it. If your baby doesn’t die, you will need to bedshare until college.

Use the same cues as night: cut lights, keep the house quiet and still. Differentiate naps from nightly sleep by leaving the lights on and making a regular amount of noise. Keep the room warm, but not too warm. Swaddle the baby tightly, but not too tightly. Put them on their back to sleep, but don’t let them be on their backs too long or they will be developmentally delayed. Give them a pacifier to reduce SIDS. Be careful about pacifiers because they can cause nursing problems and stop your baby from sleeping soundly. If your baby sleeps too soundly, they’ll die of SIDS.

Don’t let your baby sleep too long, except when they’ve been napping too much, then you should wake them. Never wake a sleeping baby. Any baby problem can be solved by putting them to bed earlier, even if they are waking up too early. If your baby wakes up too early, put them to bed later or cut out a nap. Don’t let them nap after 5 pm. Sleep begets sleep, so try to get your child to sleep as much as possible. Put the baby to bed awake but drowsy. Don’t wake the baby if it fell asleep while nursing.

You should start a routine and keep track of everything. Not just when they sleep and how long, but how long it has been between sleep, how many naps they’ve had per day, and what you were doing before they slept. Have a set time per day that you put them to bed. Don’t watch the clock. Put them on a schedule. Scheduling will make your life impossible because they will constantly be thrown off of it and you will become a prisoner in your home.

Using CIO will make them think they’ve been abandoned and will be eaten by a lion shortly. It also causes brain damage. Not getting enough sleep will cause behavior and mental problems, so be sure to put them to sleep by any means necessary, especially CIO, which is the most effective form. Extinction CIO is cruel beyond belief and the only thing that truly works because parents are a distraction. The Sleep Lady Shuffle and Ferber method are really CIO in disguise or Controlled Crying and so much better than Extinction. All three of these will prevent your child from ever bonding with you in a healthy way. Bedsharing and gentler forms of settling will cause your child to become too dependent on you.

Topping the baby off before bed will help prevent night wakings. When babies wake at night, it isn’t because they are hungry. If the baby wants to nurse to sleep, press on the baby’s chin to close its mouth. Don’t stop the baby from nursing when asleep because that doesn’t cause a bad habit. Be wary of night feeds. If you respond too quickly with food or comfort, your baby is manipulating you. Babies can’t manipulate. Babies older than six months can manipulate.
Sleep when the baby sleeps. Clean when the baby cleans. Don’t worry. Stress causes your baby stress and a stressed baby won’t sleep.

Background:

Morningside Heights / “SoHa” (South Harlem) is apparently Time Warner Cable country.  Like most New Yorkers who want internet, I had to deal with the worst company ever.  So I dealt with them for about 6 years, until the upload speeds got so bad that I could barely check email.

Most of you know the drill.  You take an hour to get on the phone with someone in “tech support”, they tell you the only thing they can do is send someone… in 3 weeks… who will show up sometime between 8am and 6pm. The same way UPS delivers packages.

I had done this before and I had enough.  I even disputed the last 3 months of service (thanks Amex!) and filed a BBB complaint as I had regularly checked SpeedTest.net and had proof that our speeds were terrible.

Now we’re CLEAR customers:

I had heard of this new(ish) service called Clear through a friend of my cousin’s (we were at his friend’s apartment in midtown).  She said she hated TWC more than anything and switched and loved Clear mostly because it wasn’t TWC.

Clear is 4G wireless internet.  You buy the hotspot ($100) and pay monthly ($50) and can connect up to 8 devices to it.  

I ditched TWC and went to Clear about 2 years ago in 2012.  The speed was actually pretty good most of the time. Streaming Netflix with Roku usually works reliably. I noticed immediately that upload speeds were 10x faster than TWC and that made a lot of things much snappier.

But then I started noticing not only would the speed drop, but the speed would change depending on what I was doing.

Don’t throttle me, bro:

This behavior, known as throttling, is pretty common among ISPs and Wireless providers to try to give as many people as fast a speed as frequently as possible.  Clear was already embroiled in a class action lawsuit around throttling, so this wasn’t anything new.  Only problem is they seem to all deny this happens and it’s kind of illegal.  I pay a monthly fee for a particular broadband speed. I expect to get that speed. Otherwise, I shouldn’t have to pay the full amount.

I thought I’d add my discovery to the pile of evidence and I wrote a blog post (with video) of the really odd behavior I was experiencing.  Interesting stuff.

Clear raises its price, like a boss… you really hate:

Then on December 24, 2013, I received this email:

Important notice regarding your CLEAR account

At CLEAR, our mission is to deliver good value. Sometimes that means making difficult choices to continue offering the best possible service.

This message is to inform you that the monthly service rate you have been paying for CLEAR service will be increasing. The change is to help manage costs and remain competitive. Effective with your next billing cycle, your monthly service rate will increase. Your new monthly service rate will be:

Account ID: xxx
Monthly service fee: $54.99 (plus taxes) per month.

So let me get this straight.  You guys are in the middle of a class action lawsuit because your service isn’t as advertised.  You throttle my internet speed.  And now you want another $5/mo to keep giving me the same service?  Grrr..

But why don’t you just switch?

The obvious question is why can’t I just switch to another ISP? Yes, I’ve considered this.  We only want internet (no cable, no phone, no sports).  We’ve been cord cutters for about 6 years.  It is glorious.  TWC is horrible but I’m considering switching back.  Other than that, I’m at a loss.  It seems like an oligopoly controls areas of NYC, either through availability (ie, I can’t get Comcast where I live) or through contracts (ie I can’t just sign up for a Verizon hotspot without a tedious contract).  At least with Clear, you can cancel anytime with no fee and all you have to do is buy the hotspot. There are none of the bullshit hidden fees you find with every other provider.  They were disrupting the industry, and that’s something I support.  Or as my cousin’s friend would say of her discerning ISP choice: “Anything but Time Warner Cable.”

think I can get an AT&T hotspot and tack it on to our existing plan, but I’m not sure the price and speed (and data cap) is as good as Clear.  Also, you have to contend with all this contractual nonsense.  Oh, and AT&T ain’t exactly the most charming company either. But maybe it’s worth it.

Honestly, if anyone knows of an inexpensive, fast(ish), wireless internet connection with no long term contract for about $40-50/mo, let me know in the comments.

Back to the Class Action:

On February 6, 2014, I received this amusing letter from the Clearwire Litigation Settlement Administrator.  The term they use for throttling is “managed internet service speed”.

I’m getting a whopping $7 credited back to my account.  I guess that’s better than nothing.

But keep in mind: speed is still an issue, they just raised the price $5/mo for the same service, and this is a settlement that goes back 4 years.  I would have at least expected a complimentary month.

I wish there were more competition:

I’m sure there are a million reasons why internet pipes and networks are expensive and hard to build.  But as a customer, and this being Amurrikahh, I expect some competitive pricing and services.  All I want is a fast (unthrottled), reliable, inexpensive, private internet connection.  Google is giving entire cities internet. It’s tough for NYC to be the most cutting edge tech city in the country or world when the internet isn’t flowing into apartments like water.

Am I demanding too much?  Leave a comment!

Here’s my quick list of noteworthy things for me in 2013:

Lost a good friend. Really miss you, Rory.

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Had a son! Jack is awesome.

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… and he’s a lot cuter than I was as a baby. (Thank you, Maddy!) Baby boobs? Seriously!?I am what David Letterman might look like if he were 3 months old.

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My father-in-law, Marc, survived stage 4 throat cancer.

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Lost my job at GroundLink after a major round of layoffs in June.

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… But moved to Kaplan in August where I am running product for Grockit.com, (which was acquired by Kaplan) and loving it. I have a fancy little office and a standing desk, and am coding too!

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Made VocabSushi totally free.

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Hacked Check In Take Out and won the Venmo prize.

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Helped build Cheftacular, which won 2nd prize in Campbell’s “Hack the Kitchen” competition 

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Hacked Career Hound at TechCrunch Disrupt and won a sweet API prize

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Helped build Hired in NY which won 3rd prize in NYC Big Apps

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Hacked Pay Yourself First (all by myself!) and won a prize at the Financial Empowerment Hackathon

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Finally learned the intro to Stairway to Heaven

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And Jack and Sagan have to listen to me play (on repeat)!

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But seriously…

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Here’s to a productive and fun 2014!

Update: We compiled a photobook with stories and more pictures.  You can view it here.

On Dec 16, Rory Pettingill took his life and I lost a friend.

He was a massively talented musician, designer and hacker. I just wanted to share a few stories about Rory.

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Meeting Rory

My wife and I hosted a masquerade-themed New Years party at our place to ring in 2013.  Sean rolled in with his roommates Rory and Eric.  My wife would later remark that these dapper guys had serious style.  I had mentioned to Sean that I was looking for a designer to help me at Groundlink. So he instantly introduced Rory, who said he loved responsive design and was honing his CSS/HTML coding abilities. But he hadn’t done any hackathons. I suggested he come to the Foursquare hackathon in a few weeks. A super friendly hipster designer? He’d fit right in!

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At the Foursquare Hackathon, January 5, 2013 (Rory’s first). We built ”Check In Take Out”. The design was amazing.  We won the Venmo prize.

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I was lucky enough to bring Rory to Groundlink as a contract designer. He’d come in a few days a week to work on mostly mobile work. We worked together from the beginning of January 2013 until we all got let go at the end of June. During that time, Rory effectively redesigned the entire mobile experience. We churned out a ton of cool ideas. He would come in, I’d throw a few sketches at him, and by the end of the day he’d hand me PSDs that nailed what I had in mind.

I remember one of the first days he came in to work - a frigid day in January - wearing basically a t-shirt, a thin buttoned sweater and skinny jeans. I was in a giant winter coat. We went out to lunch and talked shop.

I loved coming in to work with Rory. He was always excited to riff on ideas. We could be creative together and come up with new and innovative designs. He empowered me to dream up new features because he’d turn these sketches turn into screens you could tap and swipe. I learned a lot about design and always marveled at the magic Rory made on his Macbook.

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(I worked at the standing desk in the middle, Rory sat at the table on the left.)

I never realized how deep his musical roots went until one day he said he was getting back into music and told me to look up “The Apathy Eulogy” on Spotify. “Oh, this was my high school band…” I thought wow, you guys did this in high school? And it’s on Spotify? I work with a rockstar.

Rory was in the office when we were all laid off on the last Friday in June. He didn’t seem too worried. He had confidence and I knew this guy was in high demand. He was new to New York but he knew, as I did, that he had huge potential.

Campbell’s “Hack The Kitchen”

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Our app, “Cheftacular”, won second prize ($10k!) out of 150 submissions, three rounds of judging and a live demo at Google HQ. We were bested only by a 12-person design agency out of Milwaukee. We felt pretty darn good!

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Rory is seen here after the awards ceremony holding the trophy.

He was extremely proud of the design he created for this project, and for good reason.

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TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon, on April 27-28, 2013

We built “Career Hound”.

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Rory was the “self-appointed MVP” of a late-night dodgeball game at TechCrunch Disrupt and was interviewed on camera by TechCrunch TV.  He told me afterwards of the interview that while he was embarrassingly out of breath he was quite happy with his answer to what made him the MVP: “It was probably that high jump at the end there that really sealed the deal. The high jump to the Zelda roll was probably it.” [Jump to 4:30]

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There were 1,000 hackers who presented a total of 160 hacks.

We placed 2nd in an API category and took home $1,000.
After our demo, people commented to me about how our design was among the most polished and impressive they had seen on stage.

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I asked Rory to put together a funny birth announcement for me and my wife, Maddy. We sent this to our friends and family and I posted it to my blog.

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The last time Maddy and I saw Rory was by chance. It was Maddy’s due date and we were walking along Fifth Ave. Rory was riding on a beat up old bicycle and nearly ran us over. He said he knew he shouldn’t ride on the sidewalk and that his bike barely had brakes, but it was all good.

Jack Reece Novich was born four days later, on September 27, 2013.

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Career Hound turned into “Hired in NY”, an app to help people prepare and apply to startup jobs in NYC.  Rory designed the hell out it, meticulously crafting dozens of screens.

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We submitted “Hired in NY" into the fourth annual NYC BigApps Competition.

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Here we are at the fancy IAC building at W 18th st attending the awards ceremony where we won third prize ($10k!) in the category of “jobs and economic mobility”.  This would be our highest profile win and my last project with Rory.

We also got a booth at the Consumer Electronics show the following week.  But mostly fooled around while we were there.

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Because Rory was a creator, his memory will live on through his music and his design.  Just a day after the horrible news, Groundlink pushed an update to their app. I opened it and saw Rory’s designs and remembered all those months working together.

I never got to know Rory well enough to learn that his mellow, cheerful demeanor belied a darker, more painful battle within.  I really cared a lot about Rory and thought of him whenever anyone mentioned “design”.  We were all lucky to have had a chance to befriend and work professionally with him.

This is a tough loss for us all.  We’ll miss you.

We were in the supermarket near us (Central Market) and I noticed this gigantic tub of Nutella.  I’ve seen it before, but always assumed it was just a prop.

Nope!

It’s 5Kg of Nutella with a pricetag of $59.99.  So of course I had to do some math and see how that compared to the smaller 13Oz (371 gram) standard tubs on the left, priced at $4.40.

Turns out, if you’re willing to forego the novelty of a hilariously oversized Nutella jar, it’s more cost effective to get the same amount in small jars.

At $4.40 for 371 grams, you’ll get 5Kg for $59.30, 69 cents cheaper!

But this grocery is running a deal right now: 2 small jars for $7!

So at $7 for 742 grams (2*371 grams), 5Kg will cost $47.17, for a savings of almost $13.  In other words, the bigger tub is actually marked up more than 25% from the smaller.

So much for savings in bulk.  Yay math!

Exactly.

Here’s an idea that would help a lot of new parents: A robotic arm that clamps to the side of a crib and uses pincers and a camera to hold a pacifier and gently “re-attach” it to the baby’s mouth each time he spits it out.
Parents will understand this problem.  You put your baby in the crib when he’s just hanging out for a bit. He loves his pacifier when he’s sucking on it, but then, because he’s a baby, he has momentary lapses of reason and just spits it out.  But he doesn’t really care why the pacifier isn’t in his mouth anymore, he just immediately gets upset and starts “kvetching”.  Cue the robotic parent to pick up the pacifier and plop it back in the baby’s mouth.
I often feel like a robot since this is literally what I’ll do for a chunk of time.
Unfortunately, “pacifier technology” has not evolved past this little rubber thing that babies constantly spit out and that seems to be shaped and built in such a way so they always and immediately roll under the crib or sofa.  Hence, the most incredible pacifier invention seems to be a little clip - one side attaches to the pacifier, the other to the kid’s jacket.
I think we can do way better!  Why?  Two reasons:
1) We recently watched The Wolverine, which basically is about a rich Japanese dude who spends his money on lots of cool healthcare tech stuff and robots.  He could definitely invent a pacifier robot.  Here’s some of his stuff:

A sweet chair:

A sweet exoskeleton Samurai (that isn’t Iron Man):

A sweet MRI machine:

2) An NPR piece about robot nannies that will save Japan’s economy.

Self-driving cars are awesome and hopefully Google, Tesla and Nissan will deliver them to consumers in the next few years.  I was just telling my father about the benefits of computer-controlled vehicles and why they’ll soon make “human operated” cars as outdated as horse and buggies.

I’ve loved this stuff for a while.  I was mesmerized by this dream back in 2000.  This is what I wrote on the back of a paper placemat, while hanging out in a restaurant in Haifa, Israel.  Not exactly earth-shattering revelations, but many of the benefits (ie cell phones in cars are distractions, computers respond faster than humans) seem pretty accurate.  Here are those notes.

I really can’t wait to get into a self-driving car!

———-

Computer Navigation System

Constant tracking of all vehicles within a 2km radius w tracking of all movement within

Benefits:

  • Cars could react significantly faster than human reflexes
  • Humans would not have to operate vehicles
  • — drunk driving
  • — and drugs
  • — cell phones
  • — external impairment eliminated
  • No traffic. No redlights b/c it would slow the car and coordinate movement between intersections
  • — Car would move at fastest safe speed (most gas efficient also) taking into account all hills and valleys, etc
  • — Never have to stop on highways or whatever.  All cars would move at the same speed.  And congestion would be significantly reduced, as cars would change lanes far in advance of any road problems as theey’d know about them.
  • Personal satisfaction of driving would continue:
  • — When a person is driving, all automated would know
  • — If person tried to drive into something, CNS would resume control of car and change wheel direction, person would not notice in steering wheel.  This would be like a “slot car” mechanism in amusement parks, where a thin metal rail keeps the car on track while the driver is modestly under the impression they are in full control of the vehicle.
  • No need for additional roads. Roads are only needed bc of road congestion, but CNS eliminates much of it.

Costs:

  • Virtually eliminates minor accidents (bumps, fender benders, etc in parking lots and < 10 mph crashes w/o injury)
  • Insurance companies would bear the most financial benefits and could possibly finance such endeavors

- Relive stress on road, aggressive driving

- Fully integrated with GPS and onboard computer would offer destination or roads to travel obviously, never get lost again, but also fastest driving route, taking into account traffic congestion, road problems, etc.

Requirements:

  • CNS “site” every 2km
  • — every 10 on highways. depends on tracking range
  • cars equipped with CNS hooked up to steering, gas, brake, blinkers, etc
  • All cars need to be tested to gather “reaction” information, wheel radius, mpg, etc which would be logged in a database
  • Who makes the money?
  • Who owns the equipment
  • Who builds?
  • Where does gov’t stand?
  • Where do auto co’s stand?
  • Where do people stand?
My parents have a crazy collection of old, unopened bottles of liquor in their basement. I remember these growing up. My parents never drink liquor so it was always odd we had this collection.
My parents never travel, so most of these are from their honeymoon… in 1970… in Israel!  Maybe they went on one or two other trips in the early 1970s and 80s.  Most of these bottles still have the duty free sticker on them.
The only time I ever saw a bottle was when my grandparents stayed with us.  From the early 80s for about 20 years, my grandpa worked his way through maybe a bottle or two.  I found a Dewar’s White Label with about 1/5 left.  
I was looking up the Pinch by Haig & Haig bottle of scotch, as it looks like it could be worth something.  If not, we’ll be enjoying these very soon!

I believe @pinzler and I did this already. In fact, the original name of the hack was “Freebie Crawl”, but then it was changed to Poorsquare :)  And it still works really well.  Try www.poorsquare.us on mobile web.

I just read “When health insurance just isn’t worth it" in the NY Post and needed to respond.

This is the silliest line of reasoning I’ve ever seen.  I’m sure Gabrielle is a lovely person, so while I am going to be a little sarcastic, this is not a personal attack.  (Also, I’ve worked with NY Post editors in the past and they take many liberties, so her voice may have been lost in the revisions. But these are the words on the page and that’s all I can go on.)

First let me break down her logic: 

  • I’m young. Nothing too bad has happened so far. Therefore nothing bad will ever happen to me.
  • I got a cold once. I found a way not to pay for antibiotics.
  • I broke a bone once. It cost me $3,000 over several weeks. I paid it all by myself, through installments to the hospital, with no interest.
  • I’ll never get anything worse than a broken bone or a cold.
  • Therefore, the value of “health insurance” for me only consists of the costs for basic stuff young people get: a yearly doctor visit and $3 antibiotics for a fever.
  • Conclusion: insurance isn’t worth it.
  • So don’t pay for insurance and instead just pay for services you use, since it’ll come to less than the yearly cost of insurance.
  • Now, does anybody have any complex problems they want me to solve???

Here are a few choice quotes:

Why pay into a system you probably won’t benefit from?

Answer: Because that’s how insurance works!

Hey, they’ll tell you, healthy people have to get insurance to cover the costs of the sick and elderly.

Who exactly is “they”? I’d love to meet the 24 year old who cites this reason when buying insurance. Also, again, this isn’t a reason to get insurance, that’s just how insurance works!

It was my choice.

Elective medicine is your choice. A broken bone is not. We’re talking about big ticket items that add up quickly and are not in your control.

But for anyone under 35 who can’t remember the last time they had a physical, why bother?

Yes… Because no one under 35 has ever gotten sick and needed more than some Tylenol and a band-aid.

Yes, I took a risk. If you want to be covered for surprise catastrophes, like a bad car crash, then go ahead and pay through the nose.

This is the most undermining point of this silly oped.  Yes, you took a big risk.  You risked a lot of other people’s money.  You do understand when a catastrophe happens, someone pays through the nose, right?  Also: ”If you want to be covered for catastrophes”?  Why would anyone not want to be covered for catastrophes - unforeseen events that you cannot plan for, that take you and your loved ones by surprise, and that leave you with bills you won’t be able to pay in your lifetime.

Ok enough of this 3rd grade logic. I’ll take over from here:

Insurance is most important in catastrophes and unforeseen situations like, you know, cancer.  My family learned about this the hard way when my older sister was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 31.  [In this blog post, I discuss in detail the ordeal with the insurance companies, the costs, and what Obamacare means to people who actually understand what insurance is and how it works.]

You’re upset about paying money into a system and not getting immediate value for that money. I get that.  But this isn’t Amazon.com. You’re upset that you pay premiums and insurance companies then use that money to pay for hospitalizations of sick people who also pay premiums. Yes, many of those people are old. But then you turn around and say “you know what, I’ll just take my chances and not pay anything.” And your insane logic ends there…  * Gabrielle, if I misrepresented your logic, please let me know.

So allow me to continue with your line of reasoning.

As you live your life, god forbid something bad might actually happen to you - a broken bone, a fever, an infection, cancer, a car crash, or a billion other things, many of which are indeed unlikely.  But then you wake up one day and your vision is blurry and the side of your body is numb.  Arguing that this is a one in a million chance event doesn’t do much for you.

In a catastrophic event, everyone will be in panic mode.  Then if you have just a few minutes to squeeze in another thought, that one thought will be “who’s going to pay for all this?”  Top quality cancer treatment doesn’t come cheap. It isn’t even remotely affordably priced. Remember, you don’t have insurance.

You’ll go to the ER.  You’ll get hospitalized. Then you’ll wind up like a million other Americans: saddled in debt from astronomical hospital bills that are orders of magnitude more expensive than the puny $95 penalty or $3,000.  You’ll realize very quickly that your NY Post salary won’t come close to paying your bills.  A few days in the hospital, a few tests, a doctor - that’ll chew right through every penny of savings you have.

After that, you’ll just give up on paying those bills. Who pays anyway?, you’ll reason.  Because we all know doctors, nurses and hospitals give you care for free and don’t expect to get paid.

You might wonder why your hospital bills are so high.  Well, when people without insurance (you) get care but don’t pay, the rest of us (taxpayers, the insured) pay more.

Now, you may face a particularly horrific situation that might involve ongoing treatment like medication, physical therapy, chemotherapy, or radiation.  You might encounter medications that cost $30,000 per dose. How do you intend to pay for that without insurance?

The answer is, of course, you won’t.  You’ll allow all of us, the taxpayers and premium payers, to absorb the ever higher cost of healthcare.

But there’s this amazing new thing called “Obamacare” that can help you insure yourself in an affordable way so that, in case something happens, you won’t be totally screwed.

There is one sneaky way around all of this. In pre-Obamacare, you’d now have what’s called a “pre-existing condition”, and no insurer will take you because, duh, you’ll just join and then they’d immediately be stuck with all your ongoing treatment costs which could cost millions of dollars. So you’d basically be denied for meaningful coverage.

Lucky for you, we live in a world with Obamacare (that thing you hate), so now those insurers can’t deny you coverage even though you have a pre-existing condition.  Congratulations! You gamed the system by never paying premiums and having insurance until you actually needed it.  [Interesting discussion here.] The downside is that you’ll need to hold out for the “open enrollment period”, which fall on specific dates and during specific windows of time, and may not quite line up with when you need your life-saving drugs.  So if you can just hold out for 3 months, you’ll be OK.  Until then, all the bills will be on you.

A quick note about the backbone of Obamacare: high deductible insurance.  High deductible plans combine precisely the best of both worlds. You pay a modest premium each month and if something drastic happens, insurance will pay all or most of the bill.  At the same time, you are entirely responsible for the first $6300 or so (known as the deductible), so go wherever you want and get the Xray or see the doctor you want because that’s all on you.  Obamacare steps in and just makes all of this a lot clearer for everyone and requires a few typical healthcare benefits to be covered by your insurance plans as well. This is a good thing for you.

Update: My friend Zak asked a few questions which I’ll try to answer here:

How long is the enrollment period and how frequently does it occur?

I believe once per year with a 3 month window? Something like that.

I also think there’s a waiting period which is why it’s not so easy to go without insurance, get seriously sick, and then jump on a plan and have them pay for everything. So if you’re coming from no insurance and want to buy in (that is, you do not have “continuity of coverage”), then you can sign up immediately, but your plan won’t start paying for 30 or 90 days or whatever.
How much can you possibly be on the hook for if the case of catastrophe, while waiting for next enrollment period?
Pick a number you couldn’t imagine paying back.  Then triple it.  You could be on the hook for 100% of your bills until insurance starts to pay. And even then, insurance may only pay a percentage of your bills going forward, like 80% or 90%, which may seem like a lot, but not when you’re talking about a million dollars. Also, that’s after your $6300 deductible, which would be like pennies in a real catastrophe.  You can easily rack up a bill well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
What’s the monthly premium for someone in her situation?

I tried to get into the NY state exchange but just didn’t complete all the forms yet, so I can’t see the plans I’m eligible for.  For an individual under 30 years old, it’s likely in the $150-$500/mo range for the 3 levels of plans.  When I was on GHI’s high deductible plan it cost me about $230/mo.

Just paying those premiums will set you back maybe $2k-$4k/yr.  That’s obviously a lot of cash, but there are options for people earning less than $50k/yr for example. And Obamacare has forced insurers to offer more modestly priced high deductible plans.  Again, it’s the high deductible part that is most compelling for a young person.  You pay for that first $6300, but then insurance takes over and doesn’t screw you with things like “lifetime maximums” or “yearly maximums” which can destroy you.

Recently, I’ve had to take a few more taxis than I normally do, so I tested a few interesting apps I’ve heard about.

Way2Ride: If you can look past the horrible name, the clunky design and the really lame taxi-rooftop ads that don’t really explain the value proposition at all, this is actually a pretty awesome little app. Way2Ride is an iOS app that lets you check in to a yellow cab and pay (automatically) via the app.

Most of us are pretty annoyed by the clunky dance you do at the end of the ride:

  • taxi driver presses “trip ended” button on his state of the art Taxitronic device from 1975
  • you see the amount on the touchscreen in the back seat that uses technology from 2004 and runs Windows NT (seriously)
  • you tap “credit card”, then with way too much effort attempt to tap “$2.00” as the tip but instead tap $200.00” and have to start over
  • you swipe your card and wait for the smoke monster from “Lost” to connect to the mainframe on a 2400 baud modem
  • then if all works out, you can get a legible receipt if you’re lucky that you’ll promptly attempt to stuff in your wallet while jumping out in midtown traffic
  • but you’ll probably drop it and be unable to expense that ride for work after all
  • all while a guy is standing beside the taxi waiting for you to GTF out
  • Oh, and this is all happening with a honking car behind you.

There’s a better way.

You see, the value of these taxi apps like Uber and Hailo is actually the last part of the trip where you get to your destination and get out. The least compelling part of these apps tend to be the actual hailing part. (And the part that, surprise, barely works at all - in June there were only 20,000 e-hail pickups, which is less than .25% of the daily number of yellow cab rides.) 

The e-hail apps claim that walking outside and physically putting up your hand to summon a car is so barbaric and crazy in this tech-driven age.  Yet most of the time in most places in NYC, that is a far more efficient way to do it. Wait a second: I can walk outside and put up my hand and in less than 15 seconds I can get a car to pick me up? That’s amazing! PS. In rush hour, (basically) no one gets a taxi - these apps fail (I’ve tried many times), my hands fail, and that sucks.

But most of the 500,000 taxi rides each day are hailed almost immediately, without having to pull out a clunky phone on a busy street, with just a hand. (So that’s what we’re all used to and most NY-ers know that’s pretty easy in most places when it’s not raining or snowing, and not during rush hour.

Which leaves the last part of the trip. That’s the real pain point, I have found. And this shitty little app actually does an incredible job of solving it.

You hop in the cab, open the app and hold it to the TV. It checks you into that cab by using an inaudible audio signal! That’s pretty neat for an old and crusty taxi POS company to pull off. You just hold up the app and it verifies which taxi you’re in. You connect your credit card with the app (just like every other taxi app) and then you’re ready to rock.

When the cabby presses the “end of ride” button, the app immediately pays (using whatever tip % you’ve set - which can be 0 if you feel like it! and can be set for each ride). It automatically charges your card, you get an emailed receipt plus the ride is saved in the app. It’s an incredibly seamless experience.

One downside is it only works with taxis that use the VeriFone point of sale system - this is the credit card and shitty touch screen in the back of the cab that was obsolete and shitty the day it came out and the iphone and capacitive touch screens were already mainstream. But that’s a different gripe.

The other major company in the back of cabs is the ironically named Creative Mobile Technologies, which I don’t think I have to mention… is anything but. So it’s annoying when you hail a cab and want to use Way2Ride but can’t because Creative Mobile Technologies - neither creative, nor mobile - has yet to build a mobile app. I think I mentioned this was ironic, but this is a really good example.

Go Green Ride: This is another really poorly named service that comes with the worst app you’ve ever seen. They’re basically a scheduled car service. That’s it. But the amazing thing is a) the cars are really nice (complete with iPads mounted in the back), b) the drivers are good and c) the prices are nearly identical or lower than yellow cabs! So it’s like a half-priced Uber.

I couldn’t believe this so when we had to go from our apartment on the Upper West Side to Westchester, I booked a Go Green Ride. It quoted me $53. To put that in perspective, an UberX would have cost at least $120, and I even used a yellow cab calculator to discover that a taxi would run us about $70.

The car showed up early and I could track him from the app (clunky but it worked). The ride was perfect, the driver was great, the car was a brand new hatchback hybrid (I think). We drove nearly 40 minutes and yes, they charged me what they quoted.

I highly recommend the app.

With Obamacare on everyone’s minds, not least of all because of the GOP’s government shutdown, I thought it would be instructive to share a personal story.

When congress was voting on the Affordable Care Act in March 2010, my older sister Jillana had just died from an inoperable brain tumor.  The tumor was just horrible luck and something none of us could do much about - even today, the only therapy available is palliative.

But throughout the 15 month ordeal, my family and I had to cope not only with this awful disease and the hospitals, treatment and doctors, but also with insurance.

With the help of my mother and her sister, I wrote the following letter outlining our interactions with Jillana’s insurance company and their unconscionable labyrinth of policies.  I faxed this letter to every senator and representative in congress, the white house and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Here’s the letter:

To whom it may concern:

Employer mandates and universal coverage are laudable goals for health care reform. But as the experience of our family shows, those goals must include minimum coverage requirements. At 31 years old, my older sister Jillana was a healthy young woman who completed the New York City Marathon in November 2008. Two weeks later, she was diagnosed with an inoperable Glioblastoma, a form of malignant brain tumor. Jillana had health insurance through her employer, Carlson Restaurants Worldwide, parent company of the TGI Fridays restaurant in Framingham, Massachusetts.

Jillana had purchased an employer provided health insurance policy with UnitedHealthcare. Like so many people in good health, she was mostly concerned with low copayments for routine services, such as annual exams and routine office visits. Not surprisingly, and like many people in her age group, she did not inquire about coverage for serious health conditions or catastrophic events. This policy suited her needs, and had anyone asked her about her insurance at the time, she, like so many others who are now being asked that same question, would have answered that she was satisfied with her current plan. Unfortunately, she soon discovered the outrageous limitations of her policy and the misleading nature of the information she was provided when she purchased this insurance.

Jillana’s $40 premium for “UnitedHealthcare Bronze” coverage was deducted from her paycheck every two weeks. Thus, her annual premium payments were $1,040. The employer contribution to her health care expenses, if any, is unknown to us.

The diagnosis of Glioblastoma was made at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston. Within a few days she was notified by UnitedHealthcare that she had reached the Medical Bronze annual limit of just $1,500, and they would no longer pay for her treatment.

Jillana’s employer met the Massachusetts requirement that employers provide health insurance to employees. However, simple arithmetic is all that is needed to see the deception in this policy. Almost any contribution whatsoever by Jillana’s employer would have meant that the premiums UnitedHealthcare received exceeded the benefits available. That bears repeating: Jillana’s annual contributions nearly equaled the total amount her insurer was willing to pay in a year. That sounds more like a savings account than an insurance policy.

Jillana also learned that the policy’s “lifetime maximum benefit” was $1 million. The paltry annual limit of $1,500 means a customer must live past 600 years for UHC to ever pay out the million dollar amount, so what’s going on here? This amount would “follow her” if she switched to another plan under UHC, such as a high deductible plan that pays out a maximum of, say, $100,000 per year instead of $1,500. As an employee logs more years at the job, he or she become eligible for other insurance plans provided by UHC to Carlson Restaurants Worldwide. Those new plans have much higher annual benefits and therefore would make that $1 million achievable.

In other words, the lifetime benefit for Jillana’s existing insurance policy was merely a theoretical limit. The “UnitedHealthcare Silver” plan – the other option available to Jillana – had a more reasonable yearly limit of $100,000 but also a lifetime maximum of $1 million.

Within 5 weeks of the diagnosis, Jillana’s medical bills mounted to $655,000 as billed by the hospital. Of this, $284,000 were labeled “Patient Responsibility,” (reflecting the discount of $371,000 for the hospital’s “in-network” status), and of that, UHC paid their $1,500.

Now, imagine you have terminal brain cancer and you are a quarter million dollars in debt, and it’s only week five. This was just after a brain biopsy that left Jillana unable to speak or move and took nearly 6 weeks of intensive physical therapy to get her well enough to leave the rehab hospital and move back into her apartment. My mother had moved into Jillana’s apartment as she needed assistance and care. A plethora of other very expensive chemotherapy and radiation treatments as well as hospital and doctor visits would become standard procedure over the next 12 months.

When a family member is diagnosed with a catastrophic disease, the question furthest from your mind is: “will my insurance cover this?” The answer from UnitedHealthcare, Jillana’s primary provider at the time, was “no.” Fortunately, Jillana began a second job as a nursery school teacher at a new school that fall and changed her health care to Harvard Pilgrim, although she still had UHC as her primary until she canceled it.

Insurance companies must be taken to task for the aggravation they cause when something like this occurs. Harvard Pilgrim, however, is the gold standard to which all health insurance should be compared. They paid for everything and never put up a roadblock or hassle to cover hospital visits, ambulance trips and cancer treatments, even when they were not obligated to cover certain costs. In fact, they have been so helpful that my mother proclaimed, “Harvard Pilgrim is where God is hanging out.”

We are hopeful that out of our tragic experience, and out of my sister’s valiant struggle with a gruesome disease, we can offer some hope to other families who have to cope with similar problems. Our purpose in writing is to express our support for President Obama’s plan and to underscore that health care reform must include certain vital components.

  1. Minimum coverage requirements for all plans: No insurance plan should have the useless annual benefit maximums that Jillana’s UnitedHealthcare plan had. That is not insurance. Congress must set up basic minimum coverage requirements on a federal level so all insurance is at least guaranteed to provide basic coverage. No one should be deceived into thinking he or she is insured when the yearly benefits won’t even cover a single night in a hospital. Policies must provide meaningful coverage and insurers must be prohibited from unconscionably duping policyholders into paying premiums in excess of the benefits they are eligible to receive. This deception is undoubtedly unethical, and should also be illegal.
  2. Affordable, high deductible plans for all Americans: Every American must have a safety net that protects them against disaster. They have to be able to purchase a plan with affordable premiums (under $100 per month) with a high deductible ($5,000 - $15,000). Few Americans will go bankrupt with a $5,000 medical bill. A bill for $300,000 on the other hand, would destroy most families. This will also help curb unnecessarily tests and procedures that are done simply because they are free. When it is your $5,000, you will be more careful about how you spend it. Absolutely no one should be left with astronomical medical bills in the aftermath of catastrophe and certainly not a bereaved family.
  3. Patient advocates: When you become sick, the last thing you can focus on is the fine print in your insurance policy. There is no time to wait on the phone and try to learn about the intricacies of what’s covered or what’s not. That work must be left to an expert who works on your behalf for your best interest, not a bottom line. All plans must provide a patient advocate who answers his or her phone and is the first call you make when catastrophe strikes. This person will go to bat for you, navigate the insurance bureaucracy and denials and draw from his or her broad experience to obtain the best options for you.
  4. Insurance plans should emulate Harvard Pilgrim: Incentives for insurance companies are backwards. An insurance company’s goal is to increase its bottom line by denying claims or otherwise putting up administrative roadblocks to slow down how quickly it has to pay bills. Most people who have had significant medical bills have had to cope with this problem. My father and other doctors routinely experience this when they bill for visits. The industry does not have multi-billion dollar profits because it is generous. Harvard Pilgrim is a non-profit health plan covering 1 million people in 3 states and had $20 million in profit in 2009. In 2009 US News & World Report named it the best insurance plan in America for the fifth year in a row. (Compare this ranking to UnitedHealthcare of New England, #92, and all 23 other UHC plans ranked worse, down to #214 for UHC of Mississippi. This was out of 239 ranked plans.)
  5. COBRA Reimbursement: When Jillana became ill, she was immediately unable to go back to work and was therefore eligible for COBRA. But at $545 per month, the premium was simply unaffordable. Massachusetts has a reimbursement program and they paid for virtually all of those premiums month after month. This needs to be instituted on a national scale. This makes financial sense for a state because if Jillana couldn’t pay COBRA, she’d be stuck going to Medicaid which would end up costing the state far more in health care costs. While the unemployed have the COBRA option, the premiums are simply far too expensive for an average person to pay in addition to feeding a family, paying rent, and other living expenses. It is imperative that a long term reimbursement option be implemented so no one has to forego insurance or experience a lapse in coverage (which can lead to later denial of insurance due to a preexisting condition). This not only provides a safety net to the recently unemployed, but also makes financial sense to the state.

My father is an internist who has been in private practice in Westchester for 31 years. He knows the insurance industry inside and out and has a unique perspective on how we can reform medicine so it is fair to patients, less expensive for everyone and sets up incentives that are not geared towards maximizing insurance companies’ bottom lines or encouraging patients to demand, and doctors to prescribe, unnecessary tests and treatments.

As you continue your admirable effort at health care reform, I respectfully request that you set aside some time to have a brief discussion with my father. I am convinced that his perspective, as a veteran doctor and the grieving father of a daughter forced to fight against both cancer and this country’s health care system, would offer valuable insights.

Finally, we implore you to look realistically at the survey data - people report they are “satisfied” with their care primarily because they have never had to use their coverage. If you live in a climate where the weather is rarely cold, you are unlikely to be too concerned about the quality of your heating system. Not so, if you live in New England. The same is true of health insurance. The important question is what are people with chronic conditions, debilitating diseases and vicious tumors saying about their insurance? What is the cost to all of us when those people are left without appropriate coverage?

We received only a handful of generic responses from the White House, HHS, and possibly Chuck Schumer.

This was the insurance coverage card that Jillana had signed up for. It’s hard to see but you can make out the $100,000 and $1,500 annual maximum benefit.

When people talk about Obamacare and the affordability of insurance, no one ever seems to talk about how much it actually costs for an individual to buy real insurance on their own.  The big boy insurance that actually pays for you when you get sick.  I mean literally pick up the phone, call Aetna/Blue Cross/Oxford and say “hi, I’d like to buy insurance so I’m covered in case of catastrophe, what are my options and how much will it cost?”  I’ve done this.

I was a freelancer for many years and back in 2007 I was just coming off of 18 months of Cobra (paying an insane $380/mo for the plan I had from Citigroup).  

I called all of the typical NY insurers to find a high deductible plan.  The reps on the phone would say casually “oh, this plan is $1,100 per month, that plan is $1,600 per month… we don’t have a high deductible plan”.  More likely, they’d have to take down a lot of invasive information, then mail me a quote with what the premium would be.

Let that sink in for a second before you go bashing the healthcare exchanges.  Insurance is not like Amazon or Kayak. It is nearly impossible to compare plans because they all have so many loopholes and moving parts (see my sister’s plan) and you can’t even get a straight price via the web or phone.  At least this was my experience through 2009 when I had to make the same inquiries to NY insurance companies on behalf of my sister to see if they’d take someone with a pre-existing condition facing millions of dollars of medical bills.  Obamacare is a step towards making plans more comparable in their benefits (bronze, gold, silver) and with transparent costs to consumers online.

After talking to 6 leading providers, I finally found a GHI high deductible plan for $230/month.  For those who aren’t familiar with what a high deductible plan is, it means these guys don’t have to pay for squat - office visit, xray, hospital stay, ambulance, scripts, etc - until qualified expenses (that is, costs for all those things that they say are legit) hit the deductible threshold, in my case this was $5,000.  So that means I’m going to pay out $230*12 + $5,000 = $7,760 for the year before I ever see a dime from the insurance company.

Here’s the crazy part: that’s not a terrible deal. Trouble is, when you get older, those premiums go well into the thousands of dollars.  What would make sense (which we described in the letter) is to have a low-cost high deductible plan of maybe $100/mo (cable bill, cell phone bill) that came with a reasonable deductible of maybe $2,000.  And ensure it actually comes to bat for you when you need it most!  When you’re hospitalized or have cancer or get hit by a car or whatever, you expect your insurance to do the one thing you’ve been paying it diligently, month after month, to do: pay your goddamn bills!

When my sister got sick and we realized that “insurance” can just be a scam and not actually cover you over a certain amount or have confusing limitations (this is known as “under-insured”), I immediately called GHI and asked what would happen if I got cancer and needed $1 million in care from doctors, hospital stays, medications, chemotherapy, etc. Would they cover it?

Luckily, NY is pretty progressive so (as far as I could tell) plans here don’t have limitations when you get sick. You could still be very much in the hole for a lot since you could be responsible for, say, 20% of the cost, which is still $200,000.  That amount would either bankrupt most people immediately, or give you a lifetime of debt to pay back.

Healthcare is a huge mess and the reasons why it’s so expensive are quite complex.  I suspect most people have similarly horrific experiences when they have to actually use their insurance to get high quality care from hospitals and doctors.  I know my family’s story is not unique. But I thought sharing theirs and mine would help illustrate just how valuable healthcare reform is and that the millions of people who are hitting the exchange websites have probably attempted to navigate the insurance system on their own and failed.

Feel free to leave comments or questions and I’ll do my best to address them.