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Starting a Company Is Hard. Good Health Insurance Makes It Easier.


Xconomy Boston — 

Usually late August is fairly laid-back, but this year the debate over how states are implementing the federal Affordable Care Act seems to get louder by the day.

Except here in Massachusetts, where it’s pretty quiet. Why? Because it’s already been addressed here. I must admit, I don’t remember there being very much angst at the time the Massachusetts healthcare initiative was implemented in 2006. I could be wrong, and I’m sure there were some bumps in the road (after all, it was a startup), but what I can say is that at seven years old, the Massachusetts Health Connector (MHC) seems to be humming along. But beyond being functioning as it’s supposed to, I think MHC fundamentally changes the equation for start-ups.

I think it makes it easier.

It makes it easier to take the risk that goes with starting a new company when you know that you will still have access to decent healthcare no matter what, even if the company fails or you lose your job. It makes it easier to take the time you need to nurture your ideas into a company without being beholden to an artificial timeline of your healthcare coverage running out.

I’m not an economist, or a politician, or an insurance executive; I’m an entrepreneur. I don’t have economic analyses or focus groups or cost comparisons to show you as others do, but I do have the proverbial “N of 1”: my own experience.

For me, having access to healthcare means I can continue to focus on being an entrepreneur rather than having to give it up and go get a job with an existing company once my continuing health insurance from my previous job (COBRA) runs out.

I’ve been in the biotechnology industry for more than 20 years, and I hope to continue for another 20 or more. I’ve had the privilege of working on a number of highly creative, rule-breaking drugs and technologies, and I want to continue doing that.

Last year, Avila Therapeutics, the company I led, was acquired, which was both great and bittersweet. Great because the acquiring company (Celgene) is talented and committed, and the science, products and people continue to thrive as part of that organization. Bittersweet because it meant that I would hand over the reins and move on.

That’s not a bad thing. This kind of acquisition, diaspora, and renewal is healthy and exciting. I’ve been thinking a lot about what to do next, and my focus is on neurodegeneration and Alzheimer’s disease in particular. This is a very tough area scientifically, and many people think it’s somewhat naïve and crazy to start a company focused on that, but everyone agrees on how profound the need is.

My COBRA health insurance benefits would have lasted for a maximum of 18 months following Celgene’s acquisition of Avila. In June I knew that I was just over a year into my COBRA clock, and I was going to have to figure out what to do about healthcare coverage fairly soon. I had made progress in my investigations on Alzheimer’s and creating a new company, but I could tell this was going to take a while. The COBRA clock wasn’t calibrated to this timeline.

I was starting to get anxious about this, because I didn’t want to have a gap in my health insurance while I was working on this. I also didn’t want to feel rushed into a situation that wasn’t quite right or stop chasing the ideas I was developing just because I felt urgency to get health insurance. A friend suggested I look at MHC.

After 45 minutes on the website, I felt tremendous relief. I knew that there was a solution there. And not just a solution, but a wide variety of choices. It was an incredible feeling to know that I could continue to pursue my entrepreneurial goals without having to worry about whether I was taking an unnecessary risk with my own health.

Beyond that, I had a truly excellent experience using MHC. How often do you get to say great things about your government? I think most of us take it as a given that you’re just supposed to complain about government (I’m human, I have those moments too). But not this time. Credit where credit is due: Great program, great people, great service, great outcome. It was also efficient and easy, which I also appreciate. (They also have a fascinating series of toolkits for implementing a program like this.)

I honestly hadn’t realized how much health insurance had been preying on my mind until I slept so well that night.

I know I’m not the typical customer. I do have financial resources, and healthcare coverage can still be expensive (though my new plan is actually cheaper than what I was paying for under my old COBRA plan…for the same kind of coverage & my same doctors). That’s still a challenge for our whole society, and as someone who works in the biotech and pharmaceutical industry, I understand the complexity of this challenge.

But in case anyone was wondering whether there’s a real connection between healthcare coverage and entrepreneurship, the answer is definitively yes.

It makes it easier.

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  • Bananas21

    Great article. Healthcare is such a huge part of the American economy – in a bad way. This article is another example of exactly how our wacky healthcare system forces us to make decisions that are bad for us and, really, bad for the economy as a whole.

    Props to Massachussets for creating a good solution with a good implementation.