Sunday, October 18, 2009

Health Care Red Tape

It's a term directed derisively at government bureaucracy, often accompanied by copious cursing. But something's happened with health care as administered by private insurance companies that can only be described as [expletive deleted] red tape. Here's a recent example that's astounding, given the rip-roaring national debate as to whether private insurers or government can provide the best service at the best cost.

I went to switch dentists, since I've moved to a different area than where I was living. First I had to search my HMO's web site to find a dental office that accepts my insurance plan and accepts new patients. I called an office nearby and was informed that I need to get a new insurance card from my insurance company listing this dentist's code number. OK. I called an 800 number on my old card and encountered a pre-recorded voice asking me why I was calling. The choices offered by the pre-recorded voice did not include changing dentists. I was instructed to start over and explain why I was calling. I said again, "I want to change dentists." "OK, you want to change dentists," the pre-recorded voice said this time. "You need to speak with a service representative."

Ultimately, a live person gets on the phone. He asks for my ID number and date of birth. Sorry, he says, that's the wrong date of birth. This was news to me. I've been enrolled with this same insurance company for years. I state again that this is indeed my date of birth. He asks for my social security number. That turns out to be acceptable. But there's still a problem with the recorded date of birth, he says. It could cause problems in paying bills from the new dentist. And his company can't correct the information it has on record, he adds. That has to be done by the company I retired from.

OK, I rummage around and find a phone number for the human relations office of the company I retired from. I call the number and get a pre-recorded voice that says there's a new number. I call that number, and the pre-recorded voice says there is a newer number. I call that number and leave a message. Someone calls back and says there was indeed a typo on a document that was sent to the insurance company and it will be corrected.

Back on the phone with the insurance company guy. He says, once they hear from the company I retired from about fixing my date of birth, they'll mail a new card with the new dentist's code number on it. The new card, he adds, will be effective next month.

Meanwhile, I rummage through piles of advertising stuff from insurance companies, slick brochures from politicians weighing in on the national health debate, and other mail. There's a form letter from my health insurance company. It informs me that the COBRA extension of my former company's dental plan expires in two months. It provides no information on what my choices are in getting dental coverage after December 31. There's also a bill for next month's payment, which includes a fine print warning that my policy will be cut off if I'm late in making that payment.

So now I've got to check out Medicare, which I joined when I retired last year, and see if the government can tell me how to go about getting to see a dentist.

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