The John A. Wilson Building in Washington, D.C.
The John A. Wilson Building. Credit: Darrow Montgomery/FILE

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Former D.C. Council staffer Reana Kovalcik tried to get ahead of what has turned into a health insurance debacle. Despite her efforts, she’s now entered her third month without health insurance, faces a bill of more than $600 for coverage she did not benefit from, and continues to wait for answers from the D.C. Department of Human Resources.

Kovalcik left At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman‘s office in December of 2020. She signed up in February to temporarily continue her health insurance through the COBRA program. In late April, the former communications director reached out to DCHR to ask how she could apply to have her health insurance premiums covered under the federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. The legislation covers health insurance premiums for COBRA beneficiaries from April through September of this year.

By that time, Kovalcik had received instructions from a previous employer on how to sign up for the federal assistance and sought the same guidance from the D.C. government. A DCHR customer service rep had no answers over the phone, so Kovalcik emailed the agency and Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, her ward representative. In both emails, Kovalcik expressed concern that DCHR was heading down the same path as the Department of Employment Services, which has constantly stumbled in its responsibility to provide unemployment insurance during the pandemic.

Shortly after, on May 4, a DCHR rep replied that the agency was working to ensure it complied with the federal law. They promised to provide instructions by May 31. In the meantime, Kovalcik asked what she should do if she received a bill for April or May, when the feds were supposed to be picking up the tab. The DCHR rep told her in an email to pay the bills “and we will work to reimburse you accordingly.” That directive appears to conflict with guidance approved by the U.S. Department of Labor, the U.S. Department of the Treasury, and the Internal Revenue Service.

On May 7, Kovalcik received notice that her health insurance was terminated as of March 31 because she hadn’t paid the premiums for April and May. She tells Loose Lips in an interview that she did not receive bills for those months and assumed the federal assistance had kicked in. Kovalcik again reached out to DCHR for help getting her coverage reinstated, and a rep told her via email to pay the back premiums for April and May. She owes a total of $622.52.

“As you might imagine, unemployed or recently unemployed persons like myself cannot just cough up $600+ and hope DCHR eventually reimburses,” she replied to DCHR.

The DCHR rep assured Kovalcik that the agency “takes this matter very seriously,” and had recently been corresponding with the IRS.

“We require specific interpretation of regulations governing the District’s responsibility,” the DCHR rep wrote in an email. “Specifically as it corresponds to COBRA, the District does not clearly fit under the identified employer designations.” The rep again reassured her they would provide guidance by May 31.

That date has come and gone, and Kovalcik still has not received any instructions. In a June 8 email, the DCHR rep encouraged Kovalcik “to take the appropriate steps to maintain [her] health while we continue to work through this matter.” On June 10, the rep noted that her coverage was terminated because she had not requested to be treated as an “Assistance Eligible Individual,” as the federal law requires. Kovalcik says that’s exactly the kind of guidance she was seeking when she first contacted the agency in April.

“The administrative part of the pandemic and federal guidelines was a stress test, and D.C. agencies are failing,” she says. “It’s clunky, there’s poor chain of command, poor customer service, and it passes the buck onto marginalized populations.”

Neither Nadeau nor DCHR spokesperson Clarissa Rucker would answer LL’s questions about Kovalcik’s specific situation, citing privacy concerns. Rucker could not say how many former employees may be in Kovalcik’s position and suggested LL submit a Freedom of Information Act request, which he did. He will update this post if the agency fills the request.

Rucker says via email that DCHR is working with an outside contractor to draft mailings that will provide the guidance Kovalcik and other former D.C. government employees need to take advantage of the federal assistance.

“We hope to provide guidance in within the next week,” she writes.

Kovalcik, for her part, is feeling cynically toward the D.C. government. She acknowledges that Nadeau and her staff responded quickly to her emails and prodded the agency, but to no effect.

“Yes, they can ‘express concern’ and use their bully pulpit, but that’s not the function of government,” she says. “They have oversight over these agencies, but also they don’t. They have no actual power. Councilmembers are essentially talking heads.”