Coffee heat rising

Two Serendipitous Money Developments

Lenten Thanks, Day 7:

I thank God and my lucky stars for my insurance coverage through The Hartford’s reasonably priced AARP program, which has covered almost all the damage from last fall’s hailstorm. The dollar amount added up to far more than I could have paid to repair the air conditioning, the roof, and the eaves.

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Two other small financial mercies have developed in the past couple of days.

Wellcare, the carrier for my Medicare Part D insurance (that’s the part that covers your prescription drugs, in a half-baked way), decided to inflict coupon books on its customers instead of sending monthly statements. The reason for this expensive extra hassle is unclear; the stated excuse is that it’s somehow cheaper to send one weighty box of shrink-wrapped books than twelve single pieces of paper.

I wasn’t looking forward to this development, because it looked like just another way to try to force people who dislike having to waste money on postage and envelopes to grant the insurance company access to their bank accounts. Wellcare doesn’t like it when you go in from your end to send payments through your bank’s bill-pay system; they want to get your bank account number so they can engross payment from their end at their convenience. Which ain’t a-gonna happen. Several times over the past year I’ve had to hassle with some clueless CSR when the company has accused me of delinquency after my payment had cleared the credit union a month in advance of the due date.

So when this new wad of paper landed in the mailbox, I quietly cursed again. Ripped open the envelope. Dug out a pair of scissors to hack off the plastic that they’d wrapped this stuff in. Read yet another set of complicated instructions for how to fill out yet another set of forms…

And lo! What should I come across but an opportunity to cover the entire year’s premiums in one payment!

Hallelujah! When I signed up, they explicitly refused to accept a full year’s premium with a single payment. Management must have  had a change of heart. Either that or the government is forcing them to offer a full year’s payment option.

They don’t offer any discount when you pay them upfront, the way a normal insurer does, which is annoying. But at least one monthly nuisance is obviated.

Unlike Medicare B and Medigap insurance costs, Part D premiums are not large—only about $23 a month. And they’re only letting people pay through December, so that’s just $230 or so. The cost is low enough that I could easily advance it from the tax & insurance self-escrow savings. When my tax refund arrives in another month or so, I’ll reimburse that account and maybe even set aside enough for next year.

So! That frees up $23 a month from the nondiscretionary budget! Hey! A shirt or a pair of jeans a month from Costco. 🙂

And then yesterday, another small miracle: When I go into my online bank accounts to reconcile this month’s gaggle of transactions, what should I discover but a new tab: “e-Deposit.”

Say what? The credit union’s management has personfully resisted letting customers deposit checks electronically since the idea was a glimmer in some technofinancier’s eye. So what’s this?

Check it out and find yea, verily: they’ve instituted a system that lets you scan checks to disk and deposit them online.

Hot dang!

Naturally, the whiz-bangiest part of the feature, which allows you to use their system to scan and upload in one swell foop, doesn’t work with the Mac, nor does it work with wireless scanner/printers—not even if the printer is plugged into your terminal. However, they have a work-around: simply scan and store as JPEGs and then upload those.

I haven’t tried this yet. We’ll see if it works, as soon as some money arrives in the mail.

Most of my clients insist on sending checks. Google’s automatic deposit function doesn’t work, forcing me to have Adsense send payment as paper checks, too. This is a huge nuisance, because the credit union has few branches. Years ago, they closed the one that was relatively close to my house, so the nearest place to deposit checks is on the the Great Desert University’s west campus, a far piece off my beaten track. To deposit checks, I have to waste an enormous amount of time and gasoline.

Mailing checks to the credit union is out of the question. The last time I mailed a fistful of checks, the credit union lost over a thousand bucks! They finally found the checks, six weeks later, just as I was calling my clients to tell them to cancel payment. Of course, since Google employs no human beings, it was impossible to reach them, so I figured I would just have to write off that one as a loss. Thus the only way to get paper checks deposited safely is to physically carry them to the branch, walk inside, and watch the teller to be sure she manages to get it deposited in the right account (some of them have some real difficulty figuring out corporate accounts). It’s a time-consuming and, at $3.50 a gallon, increasingly expensive hassle.

So, I hope this system works. I’ll be pleasantly surprised if it does—the credit union’s software dislikes Firefox and loathes Apple, and so chances are it will choke on the first JPEGs I send over there. But it’s a nice thought.

Good grief! Near-disaster with Medicare Part D choice

So in the wee hours of the morning, while enjoying another spate of insomnia, I decided to kill some time looking up Wellcare, the Medicare Part D provider toward which I was leaning by the end of yesterday’s exploration of that corner of the insurance industry’s corporate bureaucracy.

I thought that  exploration was through the Looking Glass? Ah, no, my friends: that was down the Rabbit Hole!

Turns out that in 2009 the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services enjoined Wellcare from enrolling new customers in its Medicare Advantage and Medicare Part D programs because of the egregiousness of the complaints against it. Says a Florida newspaper:

Regulators cited a long list of problems: deceptive sales practices, delays with urgent customer problems, forged enrollment documents and the highest complaint rate in the nation.

The “problems” have been going on for a while. In 2007, the FBI, HSS, and the Florida Attorney General’s office raided Wellpoint’s Tampa headquarters.

In a now-unsealed plea agreement [says Wikipdia], prosecutors and a former employee said the company inflated expenditures by submitting fake documents to the state. Under some mental health care contracts, WellCare was paid a flat per-patient fee and required to spend at least 80 percent of it on care. Any leftover amount beyond 20 percent was to be repaid to the state, but the bogus expenditures allowed WellCare to keep that surplus. WellCare agreed in August to repay $35 million, its best estimate of the total wrongly kept from 2002-2006. After the raid, the company restated its quarterly and annual profits, driving down net income by $32 million, and saw its top three executives resign. No criminal charges have been announced against WellCare or its officials but investigations by Florida, Connecticut and federal prosecutors are ongoing. The Securities and Exchange Commission is leading an informal investigation, and Wellcare faces numerous shareholder lawsuits and sealed whistleblower complaints, the company’s SEC filings say.

This is one of the best that Arizona offers?

Well, hell. I’m glad I looked the company up before I got myself into its Part D plan. But damn! this leaves me right back where I started before I spent several hours of my time trying to figure out which of these hideous outfits won’t rip me off or try to keep me from buying needed drugs.

There doesn’t seem to be anyplace you can go to get a straight story about these companies. The material at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services website is highly technical—there’s nothing that seems helpful for consumers. The HealthMetrix Research site addresses Medicare Advantage programs, which don’t interest me. The National Senior Citizens Law Center (NSCLC) noted in October 2009 that Wellcare still appeared in the government’s listing of Part D providers even though it was still prohibited from enrolling new customers. Very few, if any, intelligible resources are out there.

The Center for Medicare Advocacy notes,

Medicare beneficiaries, their advocates and other helpers cannot be assured that the information provided to them on the Plan Finder is accurate. They need to drill as deeply as possible into the Plan Finder tool to ascertain whether reference-based pricing and other utilization management tools apply to their prescriptions. They need to check the plan web site and contact the plan customer service line to ascertain how the pricing might work. Even then, they cannot be assured that the plan they believe to be the lowest cost drug plan for them will, in fact, provide the most coverage at the lowest cost.

NSCLC advises people to talk to their State Health Insurance Assistance  Program (SHIP). In Arizona this office is staffed by volunteers. I’ve had a couple of good experiences with those folks and one that was not so great. The last guy I got on the phone was an utter moron. He flat refused to listen to the question I was asking him and instead nattered on and interminably on with stuff that wasn’t relevant and that I already knew. Another one, a woman, was very nice and personally supportive, but when you came right down to it she just wanted to chat—what she told me wasn’t especially useful or enlightening. A third person gave me some very good information. But you see the issue: I had to call three times and talk to three different people to get a cogent answer to a simple question.

I can see I’m going to have to blow another day trying to figure this garbage out. Beyond annoying…beyond frustrating…it’s infuriating!