Sunday, December 14, 2014

Chicago Urbanites visit Springfield, Illinois (In 36 hours)

This weekend we took an intriguing trip to the capital city of Springfield, Illinois. Steeped in Abraham Lincoln history and Illinois lore, it was a surprisingly enjoyable trip for this traveler who generally prefers mountains and wilderness.

Mr Lincoln's original Springfield home, preserved for 175 years
I'm getting settled in to a new way of life up here on the third coast. Most of our weekends have been spent busily furnishing the condo or exploring Chicagoland. Something that both of us have wanted to do for some time is visit the capital- Springfield. The obvious historical appeal along with seeing the newly famous Abraham Lincoln Museum and Library was enough for us to make the 3 hour trek from Chicago. We had a delightful time.

Driving three hours across Illinois allowed me to appreciate the meaning of the "heartland". I can't say it was a particularly glorious drive but it was nice to see where all of our food comes from. Every so often there was a hill or forest but for the most part it was farms. Bloomington-Normal was a rurally-metro area that we briefly toured through.

Once we finally arrived in Springfield, we checked in to the Lincoln Hotel and began our weekend. Springfield is a sleepy town, to be sure, but in the downtown area retained its quaint historical character.

Main Street Springfield
Now, in a state who's motto is "The Land of Lincoln", nearly every single town and parcel of land tries desperately to connect itself to one of our country's greatest leaders. So I'm quite hesitant to drive somewhere just because it is, in some obscure way, connected to Lincoln. Springfield, on the other hand, is his de-facto hometown and where he spent much of his adult life. Most the historical sights in Springfield are much more meaningful than where you would find elsewhere. The sites cater to both the casual explorer and dedicated historians.

The town is fully integrated around Abraham Lincoln's original time. The architecture and layout is very Midwestern which could be mistaken as dull but is actually complimentary to its storied past. For example, we were able to walk right by Lincoln's original law offices, across the way from the Old Capitol. (Lincoln was a mostly self-taught lawyer, I discovered)We were not expecting much from the old capitol but it ended up being fascinating as it was critical to Lincoln's rise to power. Most everything has been preserved and the building looks almost the same as it did 150 years ago. Court rooms and offices were much smaller back then; must have been difficult for a 6'4" lawyer!

The Old Capitol

General Grant is in the lower right corner
From here, we visited one of the crown jewels of the town: The Lincoln Home National Historic Site. This is actually the only National Park Unit in Illinois but it is one of the more fascinating historic sites in the system. Not only is his home preserved, the entire neighborhood of houses remains as it was during his non-presidential life.

Lincoln's story is a true "rags-to-riches" story and his historic home points towards this. In the Lincoln Museum, you can see an almost-exact replica of the tiny and famous log cabin he was born into. The house in Springfield is a two story semi-mansion which would be impressive even in this day and age. Not knowing we would be allowed to enter, a friendly park ranger took us all around the house as we viewed his original living room, kitchen, study and bedroom. I could not believe they were able to preserve all the original furniture, fixtures and wallpaper.

Mr. Lincoln wasn't raised in severe poverty but his beginnings in Kentucky were humble. His entire life was plagued by untimely deaths. However he was self-taught and educated which allowed him to rise to prominence in this capital city. Interestingly enough, Lincoln is actually considered one of the least wealthy presidents. He was also one of the only presidents to neither inherit, marry in to, nor amass a great deal of wealth throughout his life.  

Lincoln's old neighborhood is entirely preserved

Lincoln's Original Study where he would have written many of his earlier debates
While we had enjoyed our tour through the past, we were able to find something that catered much more towards our Millennial tastes at Obed and Isaacs Microbrewery. Flights of delicious beer and plenty of American food reminded us of which time period we were living in.

Later that night we enjoyed the holiday parade across town. The sleepy streets were almost instantaneously crowded with residents and good company. Even the current Capitol Building had extensive lights and decorations. I'm glad we came during the holidays.

Our second day was just as delightful. Breakfast was spent at Café Andiamo. It was nice to have a tasty breakfast that was filling but not thousands of calories. The coffee was great too. From there we headed to the pride and joy of Springfield: The Abraham Lincoln Museum and Library.

This place has been called one of the best museums of the 21st century. I'm not a museum buff but I can see why people would make such a statement. The exhibits are historical and informative but presented in a very modern manner. Our favorite exhibit was the "Ghosts of the Library" presentation which was a mythical blend of acting and special effects used to tell the story of the extensive preservation of Lincoln's life. Of course, it was no small joy to my librarian significant other seeing fellow librarians presented in deservedly heroic manner.

The layout of the museum is in line with Lincoln's life and presidency. After one and a half centuries of time, we view Lincoln in a very positive light but his presidency was anything but glorious. As a lawyer, state politician and president, Lincoln's life was as tumultuous and murky as any modern politician's. Exhibits are designed to make you feel the immense weight of the country on his shoulders and how much doubt was casted upon him from both his supporters and detractors. The Eyes of Lincoln exhibit shows the change his eyes and face went through during the Civil War- telling signs of the stress and uncertainty that he faced. While we give him great honor in our time, it appears that he probably received very little until just about the end of the Civil War. I'm thankful the museum showed just how difficult his life was.
Lincon's Tomb
Our final visit before heading back home to the bustle of Chicago was Lincoln's final resting place. His tomb is designed somewhat similarly to the Washington Monument although it's comparatively humble given his contribution to the country. However its appropriate that he was buried in Springfield instead of Washington seeing has he called this place home for much of his life. Actually visiting his hometown and literally walking in his footsteps around the area gave me much more appreciation for his life than my past trips to Washington or my elementary school civics class. Seeing his history as a young adult allowed me to appreciate the not so glamorous aspects of his life that are often forgotten when remembering famous politicians. I'm not sure what I was expecting before I came to Springfield but we both left with greater understanding and reverence for our 16th president. As is customary, we each left a Lincoln Cent of our birth years at his tomb.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Travel Essentials that can’t be Replaced by a Smart Phone App

It’s about this time of year that I start planning my winter road trips and travels. I used to live in New England and California where a road trip from home could be as great of an adventure as any international trip. Now that I live deep in the heart of the Midwest, I pretty much have to fly to get to any mountainous area within a day. To that end, I’ve been intrigued by the new company, RelayRides who provides peer-to-peer airport car rentals. For this newly-midwestern traveler, that means that I could rent a more road-trip friendly pickup truck or SUV for what I’d normally pay for an economy car. This makes flying and then road-tripping out of Denver, Salt Lake City or Oregon far more economical. Less money spent on car rentals means more to go towards lift tickets or vacation rentals.

RelayRides has asked me to share what I’ve found to be most useful on my road trips, whether 100 or 1,000 miles. From my most recent 6,000 mile trip across the South to my month long trip out west, there’s some things that I try never to leave without.
Vermont's Route 100 would have excellent scenery this time of year- always wanted to drive it in the winter
Smart phones have had a profound effect on travel. Ten years ago I was still printing out mapquest directions, relying on phone cards and using an old-fashioned compass even on shorter road trips. These days, those are all apps on my phone. While I would never forfeit my phone for the cumbersome old-fashioned methods of direction and information, there’s several items that could never be replaced by an app in my world. Smart phones die, occasionally break or simply not work in some places which is why I continue to rely on some of my favorite relics.

Delorme Maps

Simply put, Delorme Maps are the best road atlases available. Designed in my adoptive-state of Maine, Delorme maps were extremely handy to seasoned hunters and wilderness lovers as well as the casual day tripper. There’s an incredible amount of detail on the maps but they are easy to read. Additionally, the information in the front contains destinations, points of interest and trip ideas which could be easily glossed over in an internet search of “cool things to do in ____”. Even with my three dozen travel-related apps on my phone, I constantly rely on my dog-eared, highlighted and somewhat torn Delorme atlases. When I went on a 25 state tour of everything east of the Mississippi, you can be sure I had one for every state.

Garmin eTrex 10 Handheld GPS Receiver

You can spend a lot of money on a GPS these days. A quick google search of hand-held GPS devices will reveal that the eTrex is one of the “cheaper” models. Sure I could get a more detailed one, but I’ve been relying on this one for as long as I’ve been traveling and never once thought about spending a penny more than I did here. Again, there’s plenty of GPS-related phone apps but it is important for me to have a long-lasting GPS for when the phone invariably dies. The eTrex is essentially a waypoint mapper and helps you get from point A to point B (no topo map) but that’s really all you need for 95% of your travels. From deep in the Rocky Mountain wilderness to local Chicago state parks, I’ve always appreciated this GPS for basic path finding and directions. It’s a great bargain for those who don’t feel the need to spend 600 dollars on a 2 pound GPS device.

REI Double Shot Press Mug (or any Portable French Press)

Although there’s no app for this (yet), the portable Frenchpress falls into my 21st century travel essentials. An unexpected expense of road-trips is coffee. Spending 2-3 dollars a cup on those long days can get a little pricy on a longer trip. Plus, gas station coffee is usually half-burned by the time you get it. Most coffee connoisseurs would agree that French pressed coffee is infinitely better than mass produced stuff anyways. Having that little extra luxury on a long trip really makes a difference. When I was camping, all I had to do was have hot water and coffee grinds for a local-coffee-house grade cup of Joe. On my more civilized trips for conferences, I brought my little French press along and enjoyed not having to rely on iffy hotel-room coffee machines. It is my 11th essential.

Stanley 1000 Peak Amp Jump Starter/Compressor

The Stanley Jump Starter is like a Swiss Army Knife for automobiles. I purchased one of these for an extended expedition into the Canadian woods where I was going to be on logging roads for the duration of the trip. However, I’ve found that this useful pack has saved me on multiple out-and-about trips near home. Having a portable batter jump-starter, flat tire air-compressor and USB charger gives me peace of mind on all my road-trips. Not only that, but I could charge my phone or tablet overnight in my tent when I was far from any outlets (and didn’t have to leave my car on!) It plugs right into a car DC cigarette lighter, charges pretty quickly and runs for hours. From filling up a flat mountain bike tire to giving a quick jump to my lawn mower, having one of these jump-starter packs is invaluable on long road trips and at home. (They make this in 300-1000 amps which will charge most any car, truck, boat, ATV or snowmobile) 

AC Power Inverter

Speaking of electric outlets, it’s nice to be able to turn your car’s cigarette lighter into a simple AC outlet (like the kinds you have in your home). I purchased one of these along with the jump starter and essentially was able to charge anything and everything from my car’s cigarette lighter. Given that a majority of my travel writing is done on site, I really can’t be driving all the way to a coffee shop to charge a phone/tablet. With the power inverter, ever single device was always charged- from electric shaver to laptop. These are not very expensive but make a huge difference on a road trip.
Would love to head back out to Utah and drive this road again! (Valley of the Gods)
I’m always the first to get a new app that continues to expand my traveling universe but something things can’t be done by the smartest of phones. As such, I always include a little extra space in my car or luggage for those few non-replaceables that add a little extra peace of mind or luxury to a camping or road trip.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Opinions and Thoughts on Short-Term Health Insurance for Millennial Travelers

This my account of selecting short-term health insurance during my most recent month on the road. It is not meant to be political nor from an insurance professional perspective. It is simply my experience of getting insurance as a traveling millennial nurse practitioner, for whatever that's worth.
Earlier this year I had an excellent opportunity to hit the road for a month as I transitioned between two jobs. It was a millennial dream to go on a 26 state road trip and live out of my car and tent for the late summer. But, one of the things that must be taken into account for this length of trip is health insurance. I may seem like a "throw caution to the wind" type but I wouldn't go a single day without coverage.

So my situation was this- I was working at a hospital and had decent group coverage through their employee plan. I would be ending my term there approximately one month and a few days before officially starting at a new medical group in Chicago. The new job would be offering similar group coverage but, like most employers, the plan would be in effect after 30 days of employment. So that's two months without coverage.

Here were my options-
  • COBRA insurance: This means that I would continue my plan through my past employer and pay the employer's portion of the premium. While employed, my plan was a tiny $65 per two week pay period (benefits of working at a hospital and taking their HMO plan!). But continuing with COBRA would mean I would pay the additional $200 that the employer normally pays. For two months of coverage in between jobs, this is not very helpful. Especially because I would be far away from any kind of in-network coverage in my home state, COBRA was an uneconomical option.
  • Obtain a plan on the "Obamacare" Marketplace: This was also an unlikely option as I was reasonably sure that I would have coverage through a new plan in 2 months. Had my future employment or health insurance been questionable, this might have been a good option.
  • Take out a short-term health insurance plan: this is what I ended up doing and I go into the reasons why.
  • Go without health insurance: As they say up in Maine... nevah-evah!
I did not have the benefit of having a spouse with an insurance plan but this could be a good choice for some. Ending or beginning employment constitutes as a qualifying life event where you could change coverage through a spouse's plan. For those who have that luxury, I'd recommend doing that over anything.
SHORT TERM HEALTH INSURANCE HAS ITS RISKS: It should first be mentioned that short-term health insurance does NOT meet the standards set by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare or just Affordable Care Act. It took less than 30 minutes to complete the application for my plan and I had coverage in 24 hours after submitting the application. I went through ehealthinsurance which is like the priceline of short term health insurance plans. Reviewing and selecting a plan was not difficult but I was wise enough to know that while the plans were cheaper than long-term coverage, there were several risks I was taking.

COMPARING PLANS: I liked using ehealthinsurance because you could compare plans very easily and figure out what best best. Deductibles ranged from $500-$5,000 dollars. Nearly every plan had a 2 million dollar limit, meaning if some reason I had medical costs greater than that, I was on my own. Most the plans were indemnity type which meant that I didn't have to establish a primary care provider and could essentially go anywhere for care (as long as it was in-network). Obviously this was the greatest benefit of short-term insurance as my employee plan was managed care (meaning I wouldn't be covered for anything other than emergency visits if my plan was based in my home state and I was 1,000 miles away). Prescription drug coverage varied substantially between plans.

WHAT I CHOSE: Given that all I really wanted a plan that would cover any adventure-related injuries or hospital admissions, I went with a slightly more expensive plan ($75/month) for a $1,000 deductible and 20% co-insurance. So this was similar to having catastrophic health insurance, except with a low deductible. I didn't need prescription drug coverage nor any other services outside of urgent/emergency visits or admissions. It was through HCC life which seemed to offer better plans for what I was seeking. Obviously I didn't need any OB/GYN type coverage but if you're female, this is something to consider.

SERVICES NOT COVERED: Because short-term health insurance does not have to follow the rules of the Affordable Care Act, coverage does not have the cover the full extent of long-term or group plans. There was a list of 59 things that were not covered in my plan. Here are some noteworthy examples which are typical of short-term plans:

  • Pre-existing conditions: anything that has happened within 2 years prior to obtaining the plan was not covered. TThis can include common problems such as diabetes, asthma, COPD, chronic pain, injuries that have resulted in continued therapy and any other conditions that pre-date the plan.
  • Pregnancy, Pre-natal care and Abortions
  • Substance Abuse, Alcoholism and Addiction
  • Vision and Dental
  • "Injuries resulting from participation in any form of skydiving, scuba diving, auto racing, bungee jumping, hang or ultra light gliding, parasailing, sail planing, flying in an aircraft (other than as a passenger on a commercial airline), rodeo contests or as a result of participating in any professional, semi-professional or other non-recreational sports including boating, motorcycling, skiing, riding all-terrain vehicles or dirt-bikes, snowmobiling or go-carting." 
  • Any self-inflicted Injury or Sickness.
  • STDs/STIs
  • Immunizations and Routine Physical Exams.
  • Charges for travel or accommodations other than local ambulances (no wilderness rescue services, obviously)
  • Services received or supplies purchased outside the US
  • Chronic fatigue or pain disorders.
As you can see, the list is pretty extensive and there are numerous things on here that could happen to even the safest of travelers. While I don't have the specific details on all plans, I'm under the impression that this is pretty common for most short-term medical plans.

MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES: Know that most short-term medical plans do not cover any kind of mental health or substance abuse treatment. Take this into consideration when deciding whether short term health insurance is best for you.

PREVENTATIVE HEALTH: Most normal preventative health services were not covered. Again, I needed short-term insurance and I'm young and healthy so this was not concerning.
PRESCRIPTION DRUG COVERAGE: As mentioned earlier, there was no prescription drug coverage under my plan other that inpatient medications. I had the benefit of being a healthy young person with zero medications. I don't believe oral contraceptives would have been covered under my plan.

PAYMENT AND DURATION: The plan was billed and went into effect 24 hours after I applied and I paid by the month. The maximum duration was 6 months. If I had kept this plan, I would have had to have paid the "Obamacare Penalty" if I continued to get coverage through the non-Affordable Care Act compliant plan. Fortunately, my employer's insurance kicked in before the end of the year. There was an option to pay the entire up-front cost of a plan for a certain period of time which would have been cheaper. For example, instead of paying $75 on a month to month basis, I could have paid for 2-6 months of it up-front and saved money. I didn't do this just in case I needed to cancel the plan early or continue it longer than anticipated.

In the end, I didn't use the insurance at all; my trips were all safe and I had no reason to see a healthcare provider nor hospital. However it was a great comfort to know that I had the insurance, just in case. I got a refund from the short-term plan for the time that I paid for after my employer's insurance kicked in.

Health insurance and outdoor adventure are largely about managing risk. You wouldn't mountain bike technical single track without a great helmet, regardless of your skill level. It would be a bad idea to go on month-long trips without health insurance, regardless of whether you're young and healthy.