The American Association of Retired Persons, as you may discern from the name, is an organization for geezers. I get it mixed up with the SPCA, which is for dogs and cats, but that’s why us geezers need all the help we can get.
The AARP was on public television last night, trolling for new members. It sells supplementary insurance to Medicare, it lobbies Congress, it reassures and befriends the elderly, and for a nominal yearly fee will be your saddle buddy for the long ride into the sunset. There are undoubtedly other good deeds, probably too many to get into here. Teaching seniors to float comes to mind. Still more good news: The organization is now sniffing out/snuffing out scams.
Why do geezers need to be protected against scams? You’d think being around longer, they’d be scam-proof. Not so.
Let me give you an example of a scam:
Back when my grandmother was losing ground, I helped her for a little while with her checking account. This is known as the blind leading the blind, and during one of our weekly debates I came across a letter from a post-office box in the big city—Omaha, Nebraska. Grandma, who was not rich, had been sending $5 monthly contributions to a nonprofit outfit dedicated to birds. Well, not exactly dedicated to birds. It was dedicated to exterminating cats.
According to the literature, every time you killed a cat you prevented more cats, and saved a thousand birds, which, multiplying dead cats times live birds times baby birds that never got hatched, etc., came to about 100,000 birds, every cat you murdered.
Grandma was a bird lover. She rooted for them from her kitchen window, setting lumps of pork out on steel wires in the winter so the squirrels, who were always raiding the bird feeders, would grab the pork and leave pieces of their mouths attached to the minus-15 degree wire.
On the morning I am thinking of now, I told her the cat killers in Omaha were playing her for a chump. Grandma did not believe much of what I said in those days and did not like that kind of language anyway, and told me to mind my own business.
Grandma continued, as far as I know, to send $5 a month to Omaha for as long as she lived.
Here is another example:
On April 25 of this year, a geezer familiar to this column walks into the same drug store where he has been getting his prescriptions filled since he went on Medicare, three years previous.
The pretty young woman behind the counter disappears for a little while, then returns looking embarrassed. But not for anything she’s done, or even for something the store did. No, she is embarrassed for him. The geezer is not too touchy about getting old—he has been too close too many times to file any complaints—but he is sensitive, and feels he still has the right to know that he is embarrassing himself first, just like the old days, before anybody else is embarrassed for him.
She says, “I think there’s a problem with the insurance.”
From the mouths of babes…
Yes, there is a problem with the insurance. It has been canceled.
But we are getting ahead of the story. We want to go back to early December, 2015. Grandma has been dead 47 years, the geezer has quit the movie-writing part of what he does for a living and no longer is eligible for health insurance through the movie writers’ union. Slowly, surely, he sees Medicare seeping into his life.
He visits his insurance agent, Jim. Jim has been insuring the geezer’s homes and cars for 20 years, and has never made a mistake. He signs the geezer up for supplemental Medicare insurance with a company called UnitedHealthcare. Actually, there are two policies, with two branches of the same company: UnitedHealthcare and UnitedHealthcareRx. One for regular doctor’s fees, hospitals, etc., and one for prescriptions.
As it happens, prescriptions are of special interest to the geezer. He has not always lived gently, and for some time now it has taken five or six prescriptions daily to keep his machines all running smoothly. Some of these prescriptions are inexpensive and some of them are not. The one he pays for out of pocket on April 25th, for instance, is $2,200. A month. (Under the heading good news, the same drug has just become available in a generic formula and can now be purchased at only $1,200.)
In any case, we are back in December, in Jim the Agent’s office, where we find out the bill for prescription-drug insurance comes to $58 a month. Put another way, the geezer wants prescription insurance. And no, as you might guess, the insurance company does not want his business, but is forced to deal with people like the geezer in order to cash in on the industry that is Medicare.
Among the payment options at UnitedHealthcareRx is an automatic bank withdrawal (“safe, sure, convenient…” etc.) and the geezer signs up and, as a further precaution against messing this up, Jim the Insurance Agent fills out the applications. This is common practice, wherein the geezer gives Jim the Agent a voided check to indicate the correct checking account.
But now, now the geezer feels himself getting jumpy. In his life, things like this do not happen. Where are the problems and mistakes?
For almost five months—Dec. 3 to April 25—it is strictly smooth water. Right up until the geezer walks into the drug store. That is the moment he finds out that he not only doesn’t have prescription insurance, he can’t get any for the rest of the year and is subject to a fine in 2017 for not having insurance in 2016.
He writes a check for $4,000 to cover both branches for the rest of the year, half of which is eventually returned as an overpayment. Still, the geezer has no prescription insurance.
The geezer begins making telephone calls and soon he is back in familiar territory. Yes, everything is fucked up. Jim the Agent has forgotten to fill in the checking account number. This he admits openly and spends hours and hours trying to correct. (The application that went to the other branch of the same company was correctly filled out, incidentally, and in its entirety, but UnitedHealthcare did not employ it either. The company now says that because the automatic bank withdrawal is an “option,” it—the insurance company—is under no obligation to accept it as payment.)
But that is later, this is then. Winter passes, spring comes, the flowers bloom. Geezer has no inkling he is running out of time. Neither UnitedHealthcareRx or UnitedHealthcare contact Jim the Agent or seek the missing information.
For its part, UnitedHealthcareRx sends the geezer three warnings of overdue payments. The letters, however, go to a post-office box no longer in use. No letter is sent to the physical address, no letter is sent by secured mail, no word left with Jim the Agent or even the pharmacy where the geezer continues to pick up his prescriptions.
The geezer calls several times during these four months—that gnawing feeling that things are too smooth does not just go away—asking for monthly statements, and is told each time that it’s impossible to send statements because the company doesn’t send statements. At the same time, UnitedHealthcareRx says that no “electronic footprint” appears showing that the geezer called at all. Perhaps, they offer, the geezer contacted the other branch of the company—UnitedHealthcare—which, as far as UnitedHealthcareRx is concerned is like writing Santa in care of the North Pole.
Under a barrage of phone calls, UnitedHealthcareRx then contends that it made two phone calls to the geezer, but the geezer has an answering machine and no such messages were ever received.
More phone calls and UnitedHeathcareRx claims that Jim the Agent was never the agent of record, then that it had never received an application for electronic bank withdrawals in the first place, both claims provably false (fax records, etc.).
Another UnitedHealthcare rep tells the geezer that Medicare law prohibits the company from reconsidering the expulsion.
The geezer and Agent Jim both make calls to Medicare, where they are assured no such law exists, and suggest the geezer should call AARP. The AARP rep says everyone over there is sorry. A spokeswoman for their “Loyalty Team” suggests calling the insurance company and asking for management.
A supervisor at Medicare adds that if it was any consolation, last year Medicare could have stepped in, but this year it can’t. It’s amazing how a little cheerful news can pick you up, right?
Jim the Agent calls the Washington State Insurance Commissioner’s office, which says its hands are tied, and advises him to call the insurance company.
The state Health Insurance Benefit Adviser suggested calling the drug companies and pleading with them for discounts.
All attempts to track down UnitedHealthcare management are futile. “There is nobody,” says a supervisor. “Just us.” She, however, takes a number for a return call, and three days later the call-back call comes in and the geezer is back on the line with AARP.
And all this time the geezer and his agent have been making calls to UnitedHealthcareRx, to AARP, to Medicare. Dozens of calls. Reps sometimes connect the geezer with a supervisor, but nobody ever gets to the people who decide who gets re-instated. Nobody seems to know. The numbers or address for corporate offices are “not available.”
And then, finally, a letter, sent the day after the geezer first walked into the drug store and found out he was dead meat.
“Dear (Geezer), We reviewed your request to get your coverage back, and your request has been denied. This is because your request doesn’t meet the criteria…
This decision is final and can’t be appealed.”
And that’s it, the explanation. The geezer doesn’t meet some unknown criteria. In a strange way, it feels like the story of his life. He thinks maybe he should call AARP one more time, the scam-squad.
He has a hot tip, maybe the AARP should look under its own skirt.