I came back from my two-week hiatus from red state ignorance to a letter from Federal Blue Cross (FEP). In a letter addressed to my deceased husband at my address, at which he never lived, I (he) was told that the Office of Personnel Management had instructed Blue Cross to terminate his family health insurance effective 11/16/14, which happens to be the day of his death.
We have all had frustrating experiences with the federal government. There was the time when I lived in New York and an IRS error resulted in not getting the refund I was due. After a couple of YEARS of trying to get this resolved, a letter to Al D'Amato (for-god's-sake) resulted finally in a speedy resolution. Which could have happened far sooner and without political intervention if contacting the IRS had not at the time been like falling into a bottomless pit.
There was another time when the IRS billed me for back taxes and their punitive and insane interest and penalties for a couple thousand dollars of income I had earned as a psychology intern. That time it took a favor from a lawyer for whom my neighbor worked; a brief phone call in which he explained that the stipend was tantamount to "coffee money" and should never have been taxable income quickly fixed the problem.
Not to overly dump on the IRS, as a psychologist I was one of the very few in Suffolk County, Long Island, that accepted Medicaid. At a time when the going rate for therapy was $80 - $100 per 45 minute hour, Medicaid was paying $20 for sixty minute hours. And that alone would not have been enough to cause me to finally end my relationship with Medicaid. Claims were routinely lost and payments not made, calls took endless tries to complete and ended with a demand that I resubmit and wait another month for payment. And the threat that at any time all my confidential records could be audited finally sunk the boat. In the end, I chose to use a sliding fee scale of sorts for low income clients, $5 for a 45 minute session rather than Medicaid's $20 for sixty and all-the-grief-you-could-stomach. Most others just chose not to accept Medicaid or lower their fees.
Each of us has a story of government bureaucracy, and this one is currently eating away at me. So let me share it with you.
My husband died in the wee hours of a Sunday morning in November. On Monday I made my first attempt to contact the Office of Personnel Management to apply for survivor benefits. After a number of attempts met with a busy signal, I assumed it was a Monday morning thing and instead called Blue Cross. The BC FEP representative told me I was entitled to benefits through November (which Stephan had already paid for) plus an additional 31 days of coverage at no cost. Remember that.
What I learned on Tuesday about OPM (lesson 1) is that the busy signal wasn't a Monday morning thing. It takes something like a half hour of calling and getting a busy signal before you get through. It's like calling a radio station to win a prize. Except that when you do get through you receive an automated message telling you there is a half hour wait.
When I reached a human, I reported my husband's death and my request to apply for survivor benefits. I also told her about my plan to terminate BC FEP on December 31 when my 31 days of coverage was up. She told me she would send me an application for survivor benefits and when they received it I would be switched to a self-only health insurance plan. Which retrospectively made no sense. But which led to lesson 2: OPM representatives don't listen to a word you tell them. The assumption is that they've heard it all before, they know what you want, and they are going to give it to you, regardless of your actual verbalizations.
Except that they don't. Lesson 3 is that OPM loses more information than they eventually have on you. And they appear to keep no record of your calls, request, and frequently, your paperwork.
After several calls spaced weeks apart to give them time to access whatever they needed to access, a kind representative offered to expedite my application process, meaning the process wherein THEY SEND ME THE APPLICATION. Then another wait and another call to find that they had not yet received my application and it may take another month.
When they did finally receive and process my application -- and I actually have this piece of paper in my records although I have no recollection of receiving it -- someone at OPM filled out a form authorizing Blue Cross FEP to continue to provide me with coverage that I did not want, and authorizing monthly payment to Blue Cross from my survivor benefit. That, folks, left me with a $17 per month benefit. It also left me paying insurance on two plans, as I had applied for and was receiving insurance through the healthcare.gov marketplace effective January 1.
My next call was to someone who was sympathetic and assured me that she would immediately put in the request that my health benefits be canceled effected January 1, and assured me that I would receive the amount paid to BC retroactively. Except that didn't happen either. The following month, I received a $17 monthly benefit, minus the insurance payment of $198.
Yet another call to OPM, after 1/2 hour on hold, ended with the call getting disconnected the moment I reached a human. Hours later, the person I finally talked to snapped at me. Truly. She told me brusquely that I was getting the coverage because I had failed to fill out the Request to Terminate Coverage Form. Of course; why didn't I know that? So she sent me the form, and I immediately sent it back. I called three weeks later, only to find...
...well, you all know what happened. They hadn't received the form. But maybe they have a way of knowing when an applicant has reached her wit's end. Because I was given a fax number and told to send in a statement saying this was the 2nd notice, and that I was requesting my health benefits to end on 11/17/14. After giving this a little thought, and knowing what I know knew about OPM, I changed the wording to request the termination effective 1/1/15.
On May 1, I received the full amount of my benefit, plus retroactive payments.
But wait -- you know that wasn't the end of the story. My deceased husband has just been informed that some idiot at OPM has instructed Blue Cross to terminate his coverage, including the month he paid for before he died, on November 16, 2014. And they are going after him for any claims they paid out during that time.
I do not believe there is anyone at OPM that can help me. I do believe that I am going to be held liable, once OPM lets BC know Stephan is deceased but does not authorize coverage as stated by the plan. My own House Rep. Jim Clyburn has never responded to an email, so I doubt that he would start now. Tim Scott or Lindsey Graham might do it, but only if they could then crow about how bad the federal government is and demand further cuts. I tried months ago to find a pro bono lawyer in the state or county offices for senior services, but -- surprise -- no luck.
Now I'll stop whining and tell you why this happens. The federal government and certain departments are being starved for funds, in the expectation that we the people will be furious and vulnerable to idiots like the Tea Party. This is simplistic and the problem goes back farther than Ted Cruz.
But think about it: a department gets lots of funding when it seems to be a good idea. Lots of people get hired, the public uses its services to the point where it needs to expand. And then the group that is not in power starts to yell that the government isn't working right and demands cuts to that department. People in lower levels of government (the ones that deal with us) don't lose their jobs but those with better options leave, technology upgrades don't happen, offices become shabby, workers feel attacked and in fact, they are. They are not rewarded for good service, and unofficial rewards, like employee holiday parties, are publicized, denounced, then banned. Supervisors are likewise under the gun and if not already burned out, burn out. Old workers do what they have to to get by, young workers aren't hired as needed. When they are hired, they find themselves in an environment that is depressing with work that is repetitive and unrewarding, and are burdened with stupid employee evaluations and unnecessary paperwork.
As with the backlog of veterans seeking health care, most departments in the government that directly serve the people are underfunded, with too few employees and incredibly outdated technology. Supervisors are neither trained nor encouraged to make jobs easier or more pleasant for their employees. They continue to require that i's are dotted and t's crossed, by hand and thousands of times over.
Except for the woman who snapped at me because I hadn't filled out a form that nobody told me I needed to fill out, I don't blame the OPM workers. When government services are seen to be important, and government employees are treated with respect and also given reasonable tasks, departments like the Veterans Administration and the Office of Personnel Management will run more efficiently. People will get what they need with far less waste of time and resources.
But then again, we will value government, see our tax dollars as wisely spent, and continue to vote for progressive democrats who will continue to promote and establish good government.
But meanwhile, I need to go back to writing another letter to OPM that will fall into that black hole.
*I have recently changed the Comments section of my blog so that it should be easier to post comments. I would like to invite you to briefly share your stories of frustrations with government (ha ha -- "briefly").