A Tale of Two Health Care Providers

The GI Joe COBRA logo.

Wrong COBRA. But we’ll go with it.

This is a long personal anecdote. You have been warned.

Yesterday I woke up to something no one ever wants to see: a $0.00 balance in my checking account that I wasn’t expecting.

No one likes seeing their bank account empty for any reason, of course, but when you have a comfortable amount in there one day and nothing the next, you start to panic a little. As I logged into my account and waited for the recent transactions to appear on my screen, I tried to think when someone could have stolen my debit card info. One of those fake keypads at an ATM? Had I used it to buy something online at a coffeeshop?

But no, it was just that my rent check had been cashed, and my monthly automatic COBRA premium had been taken out.

Wait. What?

Some backstory: in 2010, my junior year of college, the Affordable Health Care Act was passed. I remember sitting in the airport in New York waiting for my flight to London and watching CNN cover the vote with all the urgency of a presidential election, and I remember the relief I felt when the votes were finally tallied. As an artist/academic, finding a job in my field that will provide me health benefits is a dicey proposition; at least now I would be able to stay on my mother’s plan with the State of Alaska for a few years about graduation.

Except not so much. The State of Alaska, being a deeply red state, decided to oppose Obamacare as much as possible by refusing to let the children of retired state employees, like my mom, stay on their parents’ plans after college. It was possible for me to remain on my mother’s Wells Fargo plan only if we paid for COBRA — a monthly premium of [grossly high number redacted].

So we did. I have a pre-existing condition that sometimes requires prescription medication to manage (and developed another one in the year I lived in AK), so catastrophic coverage wouldn’t cover my needs, and going without coverage was obviously unthinkable. So we set up automatic payments from my account, my parents helped reimburse me each month, and my dad casually mentioned every month that hey, you know, as soon as I got to Seattle I could sign up for coverage with Group Health and save several hundred dollars a month. Just saying. Seattle’s great. No pressure.

Fast forward to November 2012, when I signed up with Group Health, faxed Wells Fargo a note requesting that they terminate my COBRA coverage, and patted myself on the back for being so good at adult-y things like health insurance.

Fast forward again to yesterday’s gut-wrenching $0.00 checking account balance.

Looking back through my account showed that yes, Wells Fargo had charged me COBRA premiums for December, January, and February. How could I have failed to notice? Why hadn’t I caught this in December? And most importantly, why hadn’t they terminated my coverage?

I don’t think I’ve ever been so livid. I thought I had done everything right, and yet here I was out a couple thousand dollars. I’ve certainly never been so brusque on the phone. (Granted, “so brusque” for me means a slightly clipped tone and a bitterly cheerful “Oh no, believe me, I am happy to do whatever I have to to resolve this situation” instead of my usual high-pitched non-threatening phone voice.)

Is this how Republicans feel? I wondered as I stomped my way to FedEx to fax Wells Fargo the note and receipt I had sent them in November. This RAGE over someone taking MY hard-earned money? Shoot, am I a Republican? A were-Republican? I’m furious because of the Affordable Health Care Act! WHAT’S HAPPENING TO ME.

Ain’t no existential crisis like a liberal existential crisis, ’cause a liberal existential crisis don’t stop.

The woman at the insurance company called me to tell me my fax had gone through this time and assured me she would see what she could do. I went home and crashed from my anger-high, tried to distract myself with cartoons and music, and kept my phone beside me all day long in case the insurance company called back.

My phone rang around 7:30 this morning, and I blearily flailed at it until it stopped making noise, and then looked at the screen.

And then remembered that “Don’t Fear the Reaper” is my incoming call ringtone, not my alarm. The “call in progress” screen looked up at me cheerily over Wells Fargo’s phone number.

I stared at the Android logo for a minute; it stared back.

I very carefully put the phone down on my bed and waited for the person on the other end to hang up. That, or for the call to go to voicemail. Somehow. Magically. That could happen in a call in progress, right?

(Answer: No.)

Anyway, after that slightly mortifying misfiring of my brain, I stumbled into the kitchen to make coffee — well, microwave coffee — and called them back. Yesterday I had all my complaints and speeches planned out, all my paperwork around me. This morning it was … less smooth.

“Hi, my name is — uh, I think you guys called me earlier and I missed it?” Or, you know, answered the call and let you sit there in silence for thirty seconds.

“Can I have your ID number?”

“–Right, uh, hang on, let me … get my card …”

It was before 8AM and I hadn’t had coffee. COME ON.

“And this would be about your refund, right?” said the woman on the other end of the phone. My brain registered a bunch of phonemes that didn’t mean anything, and finally caught up to the ones that made the word REFUND, flashing them in bright pink and blue neon at me. R E F U N D.

The woman on the other end of the phone, who I was rapidly considering asking for a handkerchief so I could pledge my devotion to her and ride into battle with her favor, explained that they wouldn’t be able to refund my November premium, but they would be sending me a check for the December through February premiums they had charged me. I thanked her profusely — she sounded pleasantly surprised as she said “You’re welcome, you have a good day” — and remembered about three other questions I should have asked her the moment after I hung up. Shoot. But none of them were questions that couldn’t wait until after coffee.

So it’s a happy ending all around, for me, this time. I learned a valuable lesson about paying closer attention to my accounts and about following up.

But I do want to draw a slightly larger point out of this comedy of errors, one about the health care system in America. I was exceptionally lucky in so many ways here: I was comfortable enough that I didn’t notice a significant chunk of change going missing each month; I have a family willing and able to support me; and my mistake meant that I was DOUBLY insured for a few months. It could so easily have been otherwise — I could have screwed something up and been without ANY health insurance, rather than being insured twice. And if I had lost my coverage, getting it back would have been hell.

And what if I hadn’t had easy access to a computer or a fax machine or a generous phone plan, all of which were vital for me to find out what had happened and fix it? And what if the insurance company had shrugged and said “Too bad, we didn’t get the termination notice until now, so you’re on the hook for December through February”? What if — what if — what if?

Moreover, this whole fiasco came about because I was trying to switch being insurance providers, and a lot of it came about because the State of Alaska won’t provide benefits to the children of retired employees. What if we had universal health care here, so that rather than trying to shuffle around from provider to provider, I had one single provider I could rely on? Hell, what if everyone just complied with the Affordable Health Care Act, as a first step?

Little by little, we’re progressing. But we’re not there yet.

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