Under My Skin

The wizard of insurance


Thirty years ago, many college patients I saw were covered by a school health policy written by a company I will call James S. Fred Insurance. Because this happened long before electronic claims submissions, we knew that ours were handled by someone named Lucille.

For reasons I no longer recall, I found myself strolling in downtown Boston one afternoon, when I saw a large office building that listed none other than James S. Fred Insurance as a major tenant. I took the elevator to the 17th floor, went in, and asked for Lucille.

Sure enough, sitting in a quiet cubicle, there she was: a pleasant older woman who did the college accounts, a small cog in a massive wheel. When I introduced myself, Lucille recognized my name and greeted me warmly.

"I never expected to meet you in person," I said, "But since I have, perhaps I can tell you about a problem we’re having with reimbursement. I described the issue. Lucille took out a large manual, listing the terms of the company’s college coverage. "Here it is," she said, showing me the relevant paragraph.

I thanked her and took the book. But when I read the paragraph, I saw that it didn’t say what she said it said. I pointed this out.

"My goodness," said Lucille. "You’re right. We should be reimbursing you for that, shouldn’t we?"

So that was it. The massive insurance giant in the glass-and-steel skyscraper turned out to be a little old lady in a cubicle who couldn’t read the manual. It was like pulling back the curtain and finding out that the Wizard of Oz was a geezer with a wind machine.

I thought of this last week when I had a talk about my own personal coverage with a Midwest insurer. The issue turned on their responsibility for covering a service provided by a physician who does not participate in Medicare at all. (Yes, I am on Medicare now.)

Last year, I spoke with a human at the company who explained that all I needed to do was confirm that the provider was not Medicare affiliated. This year, after paying a few claims, they apparently changed their mind and sent letters demanding payback and saying they would only pay what Medicare would have, even if Medicare actually didn’t.

I appealed. The appeal was denied. I could not reach a human. I gave up.

Then last week, Jeanette called from Chicago. She described herself as Head of the Appeals Division, in a voice that sounded like Marian, the no-nonsense librarian from "The Music Man."

"Our policy is based on what’s in the manual," she said. "Let me see if I can find it. Oh, here it is." Then she read a passage about doctors who don’t accept Medicare assignments. "We ask them to submit claims anyway," she explained.

"Forgive me," I said, "but a doctor who doesn’t accept assignment is a Medicare provider, just one who won’t accept as full payment what Medicare allows. My doctor is not a Medicare provider at all. He can’t submit a claim, because he doesn’t have a Medicare provider number."

"My goodness," said Jeanette. "I think you may be right. Have you documented this for us?"

"With every claim," I said. "I followed your company’s instructions, and attached to every claim my doctor’s letter saying he doesn’t participate in Medicare. You should have a dozen or so copies of this letter. If you can’t find any, I’ll be happy to send another."

"Oh, here it is!" said Jeanette. "Yes, I see. We need to rectify this."

I danced a mental jig around the room. Lucille must be long retired, but I’d love to invite her and Jeanette for tea.

"I’m really grateful to have the chance to speak to person," I told Jeanette. "Thanks so much for listening."

You could hear Jeanette glow right through the phone. "Why, you’re welcome," she said. "You’ve made my whole day!"

Faceless bureaucracies can seem intimidating, impersonal, malevolent, diabolical, Kafkaesque.

But sometimes, they’re just little old ladies who have trouble reading manuals. To find out, just follow the yellow brick road.

Dr. Rockoff practices dermatology in Brookline, Mass.

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