If you have any question in your mind about whether or not Congress should pass President Obama's Health Care Reform Act, here's one more story which might help you decide.
In 2003, we were employed by United Healthcare, which is a health insurer like Blue Cross and Blue Shield. Our job was answering phones and, with the help of a computer program, telling people what was and was not covered by their insurance.
In one way this was a pretty simple job, because an individual was either covered for, say, rhinoplasty (a nose job), or he or she was not. But, if you've ever had health insurance, you know that a lot of coverage is left open to interpretation. Do you need that rhinoplasty because you can't breathe through your nose, and you live your life in fear that someone will yell "Stick 'em up" and tie a gag across your mouth? Or do you merely wish to stop resembling a German Shepherd when you turn profile?
Traditionally, the insurance company will make the decision about allowing you to have this surgery based upon "medical necessity". Hint: try to wheeze and gasp as you discuss the matter with your Health Care Representative--who, was, briefly, us.
People, especially those in a union or who have their health insurance as part of a union-negotiated pension package, tend to think of their policy as being the only policy which the insurer provides. "Oh, you've got United Health?" someone will say. "It's pretty scanty. I prefer Blue Cross/Blue Shield."
The fact is, however, that every insurer has hundreds, maybe thousands of different policies, and your employer has bought the cheapest one possible to cover you and your family. The way our health care is set up nowadays, with the employer taking the fall, you could hardly blame them for doing it that way.
Another difference among policies is in the way they are administered. "Administered", in this case, means "interpreted". This is exactly like the way one Rabbi can read the Old Testament and deduce that women must wear their hair and limbs covered in front of anyone not their husband, and another Rabbi can read that same Old Testament and find that it is entirely permissable for a lesbian Rabbi to date her Cantor.
When we were at United Healthcare, UH was "administering" a certain Blue Cross/Blue Shield policy the members of which were pensioners of the Verizon Company.
These people had a median age of 82 and many of them would have had no idea what you meant by "Verizon" because as far as they were concerned they had worked for The Bell System. The men had been the original engineers and linesmen who assembled our nationwide telephone system. The ladies had been the original switchboard operators. (One plan member told me that she had demonstrated the first plug-in switchboard during the early 1920's.)
These people had been in retirement, some of them, for thirty years. They were in no way suited to telephonic warfare of the modern age. But the Blue Cross/Blue Shield policy won by their Union had been satisfactory over the years, and they were, on the whole, comfortable with it.
Not so Verizon. This was years before the current economic recession, but the corporation had decided that they were losing money, or perhaps were not making enough, on the old pension package to their foundation-level employees.
Verizon brought United Healthcare in to administer. And what that really meant was that, in every interpretation, we were to come down on the negative side. No, you can't have this, no, I don't care how much you need it. No, that is not covered.
When questioned, we were supposed to say, "This is the decision which your employer has made for you. You can, if you like, speak to them."
One day a 94-year-old woman called. She had a very bad hip and was in constant pain.
I told her that a complete hip replacement was covered, if she used certain doctors at certain hospitals, but she interrupted me and said that all doctors had told her that her heart was too weak to withstand the anesthesia needed for the operation.
She simply could not have her hip replaced, and yet she was in constant pain. But she had found a solution: acupuncture, three times a week, allowed her to live her life without too much pain, and without the crippling haze brought on by heavy painkillers.
The last time she had gone to her acupuncturist, her insurance had been turned down. Acupuncture was not covered by Medicare, and she lived on a very limited income and could not afford to pay for her treatments out of pocket.
Why had her insurance suddenly been rejected? Because, under United Healthcare's administration, her policy was now interpreted to not cover acupuncture.
We can remember that lady's sobs, and her helplessness, to this day. We can't remember what we told her to do.
We hope we advised to speak to her doctor, her children, any person she trusted, about how to fight this. We knew for a fact that United Healthcare would actually allow anything from a rhinoplasty to a heart transplant if you complained enough so that they would rather shut you up than fight with you.
(Incidentally, we think this still holds true of most policies with most insurers. This means that you or the people you love can play a game called "wear down the insurer" before the patient dies or goes mad from pain. This is also known as a very dysfunctional way to run a business.
You might not find this story very affecting. We think you might be saying to yourself, "Oh yeah, something much worse happened to my Grandma or Mom" or whoever. It's part of life, isn't it--fighting with a for-profit corporation which will lose money on whatever it gives you, and thus, wishes to give you? And the horror stories, are they "just what happens"?
Under Health Care Reform, they will not be. That's all there is to it. The whole terrible adversarial system will be over.
We are grateful even for the hope of such an outcome.