A Humble Suggestion for Fixing America’s Health Insurance Problems

Just in case Congress never gets back around to health care, I have an idea of my own.

Photo by LPETTET/iStock

Photo by LPETTET/iStock

A few days ago, I was spending my lunch hour at work filling out an online form to make an appointment with a doctor I’d never been to before. I had my ducks in a row: calendar, check. Insurance card, check. Normal impatience: tightly reined in. Doctor forms always ask so many questions. And the plain truth is, I’m no longer sure of the exact date on which I had that hernia operation back in 1996. I do know when I had my two caesareans, though. Those are my kids’ birthdays.

Insurer’s name? Too easy. ID number? I got that, even though the tiny type and the five zeroes in a row — or is it four? — don’t make it easy to read off my insurance card. Then the form asked for group number. Um. I looked at the card, then turned it over. Nope, nothing that said “group number.” Somewhere in the far distant reaches of my brain, I felt a little tingle. I had the vaguest recollection of my ordinarily even-tempered husband railing about how he couldn’t find the goddamn group number for the health insurance anywhere — when? A year ago? Two years? Five years? I seemed to recall that he finally found it, somehow, and told the kids and me to write it down someplace safe for when we needed it again.

I looked inside my desk drawer for the top-secret place where I store private, intimate information I may need again sometime, a.k.a. a ratty old envelope. On it are written such arcana as my FAFSA passwords for each kid (they’ve long since graduated from college), the maiden name of the wife of one of my college boyfriends (so I’m a bit of a stalker), and sign-in info for the Gmail account I’ve never once used (I’m pretty happy with AOL). Nothing that looked like an insurance group number. I shot a quick group text to my husband and children: hey anybody know the insurance group number? Anybody? Bueller? Crickets. Clearly, their jobs are much more taxing than mine.

There was nothing to do but abandon the half-completed form and reenter my info at a later date, or — cue ominous music — call the insurance company. I’m not going to get all pissy here and tell you the insurance company’s name, but I will say this much: It rhymes with “screw loss.” I was gonna have to rein that normal impatience in even tighter than before.

But hey, I’m an optimist at heart. I dialed the 800 number on the back of my insurance card. I listened to the caveat that my call might be recorded for quality-control purposes, by which they mean if I start cussing a blue streak and threaten the customer-service rep with bodily harm, they’ll have proof they can use against me in a court of law. I keyed in my policy number (all those damned zeroes), my birth date, and my relationship to the insured (“fairly blissful” wasn’t one of the choices), then sat through a lengthy list of options of what number to press for which problem, none of which, of course, remotely resembled “What’s my group number?” Eventually, I started to whimper. That’s when a human picked up my call. I’ve found it works sometimes.

“Hi, this is [name redacted]!” said a chipper-sounding woman. “Thank you for calling Screw Loss! How can I help you today?”

“I’m filling out an online form to make a doctor’s appointment?” I said, my voice steadily rising in what the BBC has termed an “upward inflection,” a speech peculiarity that dates to 1982 and Frank Zappa’s “Valley Girl.” I’m normally way too old for uptalk, but I regress in stressful situations like this one. “And the form is asking for my insurance group number? And I can’t see that anywhere on my insurance card?”

“I can help you with that,” [name redacted] said cheerfully. “Is the policy in your name?”

“No, I’m the spouse of the policy holder,” I told her, which was information I’d already given to the automated response-taker, but I was in no position to quibble.

“Spouse’s name?” she asked. I told her, and his birth date, too. “Let me just pull this up for you,” she tantalized me, even as I was wishing I had a way to reheat cold coffee at my desk. “Oh, yes, here it is!” She rolled off eight digits, which I dutifully repeated back to her. “Will there be anything else today?” she asked, with an excellent simulacrum of warm concern.

“Yes, thanks. Why isn’t the group number written on my card?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I can never find my darn group number when I need it?” I told her. “So I’m just wondering why it isn’t typed in on my card?”

“Oh, it was on the frame you punched the cards out of.”

I thought about that for a moment. “It was on the frame?”

“Um-hmm. It’s printed right there on that plastic frame.”

I thought about that for a longer moment. “But,” I said. “NOBODY SAVES THE FRAME.”

[Name redacted] giggled. “No,” she said. “Nobody does. Do you know what a lot of customers do?”

Strangle themselves with the phone cord? Nah. I’m the only one who still uses a desk phone these days. “No,” I told her, with my last milliliter of patience. “What do a lot of customers do?”

She dropped her voice to a whisper, no doubt to stymie those quality-control trolls. “They write it on a piece of paper and tape it to the back of their card.”

So that’s what I did. I took that excellent advice, wrote my eight-digit group number on a tiny Post-it, and scotch-taped it to the back of my card. Take that, Screw Loss!

But you know, the more I think about this bizarre exchange — actually, I can’t bear to think about it, since it makes my head ache. Poor [name redacted] clearly was no stranger to the group-number question. Screw Loss insures one in every three Americans, according to its website. That’s a hundred and eight million people, at least by my math, which is admittedly shaky. That’s a lot of people who have no freaking clue what their group number is. Screw Loss could save a bundle — on labor costs for people like [name redacted], on telephone help lines that have to be paid for, on lurking quality-control supervisors — if they just printed the group numbers on the cards! Granted, I’m no Congressional Budget Office, but even I can see that the savings would add up. Maybe there’d be enough to pay for a mammogram for Senator Pat Roberts! A heart for Speaker Ryan! A conscience for the king!

Then again, there are some things you just can’t buy.