Channeling my inner little old lady

So you know how sometimes you have to dial an 800 number, and from the first syllable emitted by the robot voice you can tell by the roiling in your gut and the pricking of your thumbs that this isn’t going to go well, but you persevere because you screwed up and now you’re in a panic?

And the reason you’re in a panic is that you’ve just woken up to the fact that your husband’s insurance has been blithely denying all the claims relating to his tractor accident? Okay, in all honesty I don’t know they were necessarily blithe about it. They may have been in ho hum mode, thinking about the past weekend or looking forward to the next one. No reason for me to presume there were any shrill cackles of banshee glee. Either way, to get back to my point…

What this means, in ordinary everyday terms, is that the giant wodge of papers covered with numbers and headed, reassuringly, “Explanation of benefits” and “This is not a bill”, which you’ve been ignoring because, seriously, who reads those things … but then you do, and HOLY CRAP!!

Paper pile (2).jpg
The actual wodge, artistically draped over a pile of fresh bills.

Oh – and I should mention that the reason you’re reading the wodge is that suddenly you’re getting actual bills – $1,814 for the emergency physician, who is the guy who essentially saved the Hubbit’s life, so it was totally worth it (most of the time, although maybe not so much when he refuses to wear his hearing aids) but, you know, on the other hand, you could do a lot with $1,814, if you had it. For example, that’s pretty much the cost of a pregnant cow around these parts.

But I digress. I was telling you about bills you might happen to receive following a major medical event.

Like $961 for the emergency hospital. You go “Ouch” because, after all, he was there for only a couple hours before they shipped him off to a hospital that was actually capable of keeping him alive – and then you look again and you realize the $961 is what’s left over after insurance kicked in $25,765 – and I mean, seriously, that’s more than $10,000 per hour! The Hubbit’s a smart guy who was highly qualified and certified up the wazoo back in his pre-retirement days, but no one ever thought he was worth that much back then! If they had, we’d probably be in ho hum mode at the sight of these numbers. Or maybe not, because … there’s more. So much more.

A whole sheaf of bills for the ambulance services that got him from home to the local emergency hospital, and from there to the bigger hospital in Spokane … and bills for the rehab facility, and the orthopedic clinic, and the imaging company, and the physical therapist. But that pile of bills is still smaller than the “explanation of benefits” wodge, so you start flicking through it, and you come across one for $25,765, which is the amount due for the local emergency hospital, and you realize that when the hospital sent you a bill for $981 they were (blithely?) assuming that the insurance company was going to pay – only this particular benefit explanation says, in a word, “Nope”. And you keep going and you find one for $99,285.97, which is just for that first day at the hospital in Spokane – less than a day – he arrived there after 6.00PM, for crying out loud. But that’s what it cost to make it so that he didn’t die right away.

You see that number? Someone tells me that’s my “total responsibility” – except that it isn’t, because this is only one of 55 pages of ridiculous numbers that came in a single envelope; other envelopes have come bearing additional pages – and all I can do is laugh. Shrug my shoulders. Vote for Bernie. Because this is absurd – not because magical medical technology isn’t worth what it costs, but because no individual human can or should shoulder such a responsibility.

And you look at it and you think, “Well, he’s alive. So there’s that.” But at the same time you realize your heart is going “Ofuckit Ofuckit Ofuckit” like The Little Engine That Could, after it made it to the top of the hill and headed down the other side and then gravity took over just as it noticed there was a wide, churning river at the bottom … and no bridge.

You know how that feels?

I really hope not, because if you’re taking the time to read this blog I like you, and I value you as an important source of warm fuzzies and endorphins, and I don’t want you either to plunge headfirst into a river or succumb to a heart attack.

Anyway, at that point, feelings aren’t really the issue. The issue is, what are you going to do? What I did was clutch the wodge in sweaty hands and take it to the Hubbit, and pick a fight with him about politics – his being conservative, and therefore opposed to state-funded universal healthcare. That urgent business having been satisfactorily concluded (it’s hard to concentrate on defending a philosophical point of view when your doting wife has just delivered a quarter million dollar-or-so whack upon your shiny pate), we agreed that there was no point in worrying about it, since payment was impossible. I promised to call the insurer on the next business day for a WT actual F conversation, organized the wodge into a neat stack (ordered by date and page number), put it on my desk, and promptly forgot about it.

I have an excuse. The Girl Child has been visiting and I’ve had coffee to drink and arguments to have and … oh, just generally more interesting things to do. Every few days a fresh bill would arrive, sometimes with a plaintive note scrawled across it from a medically-oriented bookkeeping person dismayed by the failure of the insurance to pay, and I would snicker at their naivete and rush out to suck down another coffee with the Girl Child. A couple included a form and a request that we complete it with the details of the “motor vehicle accident”, and I’d roll my eyes, because a tractor is not a motor vehicle, it’s farm equipment, and the reason I know this is that it’s not insured as a motor vehicle, so obviously it can’t be one! I’d add each bill to the growing pile on my desk and promise myself (and, occasionally, the Hubbit) to deal with the matter “tomorrow” – which, as we all know, is always a day away. Hooray for tomorrow!

Well, a couple days ago I was poking around on my desk and I came across a letter from the insurer dated April 12. It was addressed to “Dear Sir or Madam”, and expressed regret at our injury/accident and a wish for “good luck with your recovery”. There was also some reference to the need for a prompt reply.

Ofuckit Ofuckit Ofuckit.

They provided a post office box address, and a phone number.

I pondered my strategy while remembering how to breathe.

It was clear that a snail mail letter wouldn’t work. For one thing, my hands were trembling too much to type. Also, my grammatical synapses felt out of whack. And this wasn’t all bad. While tremor and grammatical uncertainty are a problem when one is wording a professional-sounding business letter, they can be helpful in presenting the persona of a slightly dotty and forgetful old lady.

I picked up my phone and dialed 1-800-ETC-ETRA – as provided at the end of the insurance company’s letter for the Other Party Liability office. A chirpy young woman answered, and introduced herself as Jessica. She asked for my name, and I gave it. With cheerful enthusiasm she expressed her eager willingness to help me. “But first,” she said, “I’d like to tell you about a great opportunity we can offer you.” Then she asked whether anyone in our household was over fifty years of age. I didn’t feel like listening to a sales pitch, but on the other hand she sounded so hopeful and eager that I decided to humor her. “Yes,” I said warily, “we’re both over fifty.” She launched into a description of a medical alert system the company was offering. She was clearly new to selling – she said “um” a lot, and a couple times she forgot to tell me something and had to backtrack, and although she was very sweet after a while I ran out of humor and cut her off.

That is, I tried to cut her off. “You know, I don’t want to waste your time. I really just want to deal with my query. Can you put me through to someone?” She ignored me. Just kept right on talking, rolling over me. “Hey!” I said. “Jessica, stop! I’m not interested!”

There was a pause, then she asked, “Would you like to talk to one of our representatives?”

“NO!” I shouted. “Just put me through to customer service!”

kate mckinnon omg GIF by Saturday Night Live

“Oh! Okay!” she chirped, perky as ever. I ground my teeth and breathed deeply, and a new voice came on. This sounded like a more mature, experienced woman. She also expressed a desire to help me – but first, she said, she’d like to offer me a great opportunity. Did I have a cellphone? I exploded – I was totally and irredeemably out of humor by then – and blow me down, she also just rolled straight into her pitch.

It finally dawned on me that she wasn’t human, and nor was Jessica. Nor was the woman who invited me to sign up for a roadside assistance program, or the friendly young man who wanted to know whether we had a TV. They were all, every one of them, bots. Not even real artificial intelligence.

The fact that Jessica had fooled me was profoundly embarrassing!

So, anyway, by the time the fourth robot voice came on I gave up on the number provided in the letter. If you’re wondering why I didn’t hang up sooner, it was because I kept hoping for a human! There comes a point in any venture where you’ve invested so much time and emotional energy that you can’t stand to quit, in case you’re just one cuss word away from Nirvana.  Come to think of it, that’s probably also why I keep buying Lotto tickets.

Anyway, eventually I called the number on the back of the Hubbit’s medical insurance card. That got me through to someone who could find no record that I had authority to speak with them on his behalf, so we got to have one of those super-fun threesomes that so enrich the lives of partners of the hearing impaired. You know how those go: you turn on the speaker phone so you can both hear, and he leans over the phone, breathing heavily into your ear, and then the person on the other end says something and he says, “Huh? Whut?” So you repeat it, and he loudly and clearly enunciates his response, and … rinse and repeat, for however long it takes. In this case it took a while, and the grand finale was when she read back a contract, and every time he started to say “Huh? Whut?” I’d frantically flap my hands in his face, because we did NOT need to be interrupting an electronic recording of a legal document. Eventually he got to say the required legally binding words, and he was given leave to kiss the telephone, and they were married. Or something like that.

We all heaved a sigh of relief and the Hubbit trundled off to play with his tractor, leaving me to explain the difference between a tractor (wheeled farm equipment) and a vehicle. “Oh,” she said, “No problem. You just need to speak with the Other Party Liability department. I’ll give you the number.”

“Oh no you don’t!” I exclaimed. “If the number you’re planning to give me is ETC-ETRA, forget it. That’s the number I called before this one and it connects directly to the fifth circle of Hell!”

There was a slightly stunned silence. “Are you sure you dialed the right number?” she asked. I said I was, and launched into a tirade about companies that infest the ether with robo-voices and inflict sales pitches on helpless little old ladies (at this point I remembered to insert a slight tremor into my voice) who are exhausted by caring for their injured and aging spouses, and also potentially facing homelessness because of denied claims and unpayable medical bills in a world that keeps voting for Damn Capitalists who refuse to support Medicare For All and just want us all to die in penury..

She offered to connect me directly to someone in the Other Party Liability department, and I said that would be acceptable provided she could vouch that they were human.

So that’s what she did, and this time I remembered right from the start of the conversation to quaver and dodder and make reference to how slowly old men heal after running over themselves with heavy equipment (which is not the same thing as a vehicle), and how stressful that was, and how difficult it was to remember everything, especially when we’d dealt with all sorts of paperwork at the hospital and I’d no idea there was more. I should mention that by this time I was tired, which meant I had to pause and say um occasionally while I thought about what to say, and I tended to forget details, which made it necessary to keep backtracking and repeating elements of my story, and all I’ll say about this particular young woman is that she sounded perky enough but she didn’t exhibit much empathy or compassion. She abruptly cut me off. “Was he at work when the accident happened?” I explained that he was loading up the tractor to get feed to the animals, right here at our little farm, and that he’s been retired for more than fifteen years now. She interrupted me again. “Okay,” she said.

“Um,” I said. “So what happens now?”

“I’ll adjust the record and pass it along to the appropriate department,” she said.

“But what do I have to do?” I quavered

“Nothing,” she said.

And that was it. What had been building up to be a fabulous blog post on the fundamental awfulness of the American medical insurance system fizzled with a soft pop. Which doesn’t mean I won’t still write it … but maybe not today.

Instead I thought I should write a blog post on the fundamental awfulness of insurance companies that use robots to try to sell services to people who want to deal with serious business, so I decided to call back 1-800-ETC-ETRA and find out just how many exciting new opportunities they’d offer me before connecting me to a human. I looked up the number on the insurance company letter.

That’s when I realized that the number they’d provided was in fact 1-866-ETC-ETRA. The 1-800 version of the number connects to a company that sells panic buttons, roadside assistance, and similar products.

So what the heck am I supposed to blog about now?

Please talk to me! What do you think about the cost of healthcare, and how it should be funded? Do you talk to robots on the phone, and do you find it reassuring or terrifying when they sound human? How do you decide what to blog about?

Author: Belladonna Took

Well into my second half-century and still trying to figure out what to be when I grow up. Born South African, naturalized American, perpetually at risk of losing my balance and landing ass-first in the Atlantic.

23 thoughts on “Channeling my inner little old lady”

    1. Hey, David – good to hear from you! Yes, it was a relief … although I’ll be more relieved when I get a new, revised wodge of explanations of benefits showing that we aren’t headed for the poorhouse!

      And, to be clear, “Jessica” is NOT my friend!


    1. Ditto, Karen. Although I’m still waiting for that feeling of “relief”, and not entirely sure we’re going to have it. There will probably still be bills. And I feel increasingly passionately that this is not the way a civilized nation should manage things!


  1. My dear woman. I am catching up with blog reading after some absence. I missed the “motor vehicle accident” from December, so I will comment here.

    Believe it or not, I can relate. I can relate to hubbies being caught in a predicament of their own making. In my situation – it was an improperly secured ladder, a wet deck, and haste. I was in the house when I heard the ladder screech as it came sliding down the brick wall. I was already on the move when I heard my husband calling my name – as in your case, over, and over, and over. Adrenaline and fear, I suppose. If he has been a heavier man, he may well have been killed. As it was, he was badly mangled, but still managed to walk into the emergency ward while I parked the car.

    Broken ribs, dislocated elbow, any number of gashes and bashes. We made jokes about product testing, since his eyeglasses survived the fall, while his eyebrows needed stitching.

    I can also relate because the x-rays revealed a fist-sized tumour in his lung.

    Where I cannot relate, and for this I give thanks to deities everywhere, is the billing system. I’m in Canada. We paid for his prescription drugs, that is all. Tylenol 3.

    What an extraordinary story you write. I’m sure there’s more to come. I hope for a speedy resolution, but as with dialing those 800 numbers, the pessimist in me thinks that chances are slim for a desirable outcome.


    1. Maggie, hello – I’m so glad your catching up included me! I’ve also been out of the blogoverse for a while, so your comment sent me off to your blog to get a bit caught up there. I see that not only do you relate to hubbies who do absent-minded things that cause themselves damage, but you’re also familiar with the joys of having a hard-of-hearing spouse! And the worst part is that it’s catching!! Have you noticed that yet?

      Re the cost of healthcare in Murica … Yes, I find it very strange. I blame Hollywood and its repeating theme of “One Man Against The Universe” … If you aren’t a hero, and thereby capable of grabbing whatever you want, you’re just an extra, and by definition disposable. How can that possibly be sustainable? Well, it isn’t. But I don’t know if it will ever change. I hope, mind you … but optimism requires quite a stretch.


  2. Wow, nicely written and insightful!
    I’m French; I’ve visited the USA a few times and always enjoyed it, but fail to understand the health system there. It’s crazy expensive and the one time I had treatment I felt like I was running a gauntlet of being sold unnecessary tests and procedures. Good luck in getting things sorted out.


    1. Thank you, Joanne – for stopping by, taking the time to comment, and the kind compliment! I’m from South Africa originally, and I’ve found the healthcare system in the US really depressing. I’m fortunate in that I did eventually find a doctor I liked and trusted, but that took YEARS, and apart from her I’m regularly appalled by the inefficiency and wastefulness – leading to ruinous expense – of the way healthcare is set up here. Something needs to change, that’s for sure … In fact, quite a lot of somethings!


  3. You kill me my friend. Only you can take this and make it so incredibly funny while it is actually so serious. We are so blessed to have medical aid here in SA but with NHI coming in over the next 15 years who knows where we will end up.


    1. Ja, the healthcare situation in SA isn’t good, especially at the lower end, and we have no reason to think the government will do an efficient and ethical job of it. But I grow increasingly disillusioned … the US claims to be the leader of the developed world in so many ways that just aren’t true. So if the US can’t get it right, why would SA? The Girl Child keeps pointing at Scandinavia, and from the outside they do SEEM to be getting it right, but who knows whether their model is sustainable. Sorry, not feeling very funny right now!


  4. Oh, geez, Val!

    You had me going! I have to say that the cost of medical care and the state of it here has me hoping that I NEVER have an accident or get ill or… Just shoot me! I have a loathing for call centres and all things of a bureucratic and accounting nature, so I’m always on the back foot. Not to mention in a temper.

    I have to say, that in a situation where I’m not sure where third party payments would come from, and the cost of medical care just skyrocketing, the NHI becomes all the more attractive. That said, we have a very long way to go before it will be something akin to what it ought to be ….

    That said, I am glad to hear that your sense of humour has recovered, as has Jim. You have often been in my thoughts.

    Continue being healthy (if not wealthy) and keep that sense of humour … well, you know what I mean!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I am always caught flat-footed with embarrassment when I realize after a long diatribe that I am actually in the wrong and that I’ve just yelled at someone who has been patiently trying to explain that I’ve called So-and-So’s Law Office and Brake Alignments and not the place I intended to call and chastise. At that point, an ‘Um, sorry?’ doesn’t really cut it.

    As for how I decide to post on a subject, apparently I just wait for the next exciting installment of “What The Hell Was The Noise?” or “How much did you say that was going to cost?” and report back. It works for me. Whether it works for anybody else is for them to judge!

    I’m glad it all worked out in the end for you though. That is truly good news. And good news is even more welcome than funny or outrageous news!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. When did life become so confusing? All we can do is laugh about it…and your post certainly provided the opportunity for that! But I do hope the insurance company actually covers those crazy-high bills.


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