Coffee heat rising

Live-Blogging (sorta…) from Bureaucracy Hell

So…I’ve lost my Social Security card and my Medicare card was stolen. Getting these back, as you can imagine, entails an unholy amount of hassle. Which do you suppose would entail less pain?

  • Call Social Security on its 800 number; jump through a thousand robotic hoops, and wait and wait and wait and wait and wait… Finally reach a person who has no clue what she’s doing. (As you might guess: been there, done that!)
  • Drive in person to the Social Security office in Scottsdale, the bureaucracy’s nearest brick-&-mortar venue. Take a number and wait and wait and wait and wait and wait… Sometime today (maybe) get to speak with a human who knows how to solve the problem.
  • Go to the Social Security Website, create a “My Social Security” account (or, if I stupidly did this some time in the past, find it and figure out how to break into it), dork around and screw around and dork around and screw around and dork around and screw around and dork around and screw around and dork around and screw around and dork around and screw around and MAYBE get the new cards ordered. Or not.

Any of those involves time-sucking frustration of the first order.

Experience shows that physically going to a Social Security office is less time-consuming (despite the drive time), less frustrating, and less outright enraging than either of the other two options. So early this afternoon, after finishing the minimum amount of work needed to make progress on the client’s huge project, I climbed in the car and started driving.

Arrived at the SS office right at 1:44 in the afternoon. They close at 4 p.m.. That left two hours and 15 minutes, sooo…there was at least a shot of getting to speak to a functionary before they threw us all out.

Drew “Welcome to Social Security” coupon number Z140. Sat and waited for them to call that number







And on. And on. And fuckin’ ON.

Meanwhile, I’d learned that to get a new Social Security card I had to apply at this office. But to get a new Medicare card, I had to go around the corner and stand in ANOTHER line to beg for that.

Finally, after about half an hour or 45 minutes of this futility, I think oh fukkit and get up and leave.

I walk around the corner to see if maybe I could at least get the Medicare card with a slightly more reasonable wait. Pass through the security guard — this one a lot more hostile than the guy in the Social Security office. Yeah: a WHOLE lot more hostile. Help a couple of terrorists in their early nineties figure out how to use the punch-a-button nuisance to generate a ticket to wait. Generate my own. Sit down.

Many fewer victims here. I figure out that actually there are only about five people ahead of me. Take a seat and…well, yeah. About ten or twelve minutes later, my number is called.

I claim that both my cards were “lost.” If you define “thieving” as a variety of “losing,” that’s probably accurate. Why do I resist admitting that the Medicare card was stolen? Because the gummint’s web page says you have to file a police report before asking for a replacement. And THAT will cause still more trouble and headaches that I DO. NOT. NEED.

To my astonishment, the doughty bureaucrat behind the desk asks me a series of rote questions, goes CLICKETY CLICKETY CLICKETY on his keyboard, and announces blithely, “The Medicare card should arrive in two weeks; the Social Security card will take about three months to show up.”


“But…,” say I, “they said I have to go to two different offices and apply for each one separately.”

“I just ordered them both.”

Oh. My. GOD! You beautiful, spectacular ebony saint of a man! Can I take you out to Ruth’s Chris Steak House and buy you a T-bone? How about an orange soufflé swimming in heavy cream for dessert? A bottle of Domaine Loubejac Pinot Noir to go with?

Stop by the Fry’s on the way home to stock up on veggies and miscellaneous junk. Stumble in the house, bolt down a box of sushi and a couple bottles of beer.

Having finished the day’s ration of the client’s index before heading off for the Adventure in American Bureaucracy, I now sit down to write this post, and….

In comes this fine message from DropBox:

Hi Victoria,

We really appreciate taking the time to write in.

For security reasons could you please confirm the restoration?

Just to summarize, we are going to undo the following event link in order to remove the selective sync conflicts from your account:

I just want to confirm that you want these events reverted in their entirety, and there are no other actions you’d like me to take on your account at this time.

Once you’ve written me back to confirm that’s the case, I’ll pass this along to our Restorations team to perform the requested operation on your account. If there are other things you’d like done, please write back with additional event links or a description of the circumstances surrounding your situation.

I look forward to hearing back from you!


I have not asked Dropbox to do anything in the past week. The last I looked — about three hours ago — all is well. I do not know what this means, but “remove” or “revert” sounds a whole lot like DELETE stuff. Random fuckin’ stuff.

This causes a complete, total, exhausted-old-lady can’t-stand-another-minute-of-bullshit-hassle MELT-DOWN!

I have NO idea what this worthy is talking about, but I can NOT afford to have some good soul delete the project that I’ve spent the last gawdAWFUL number of torturous, tedious, brain-banging, mind-numbing hours on!!!!!!! GAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!

E-mail back, also having no idea whether a reply will reach a human being, DO NOT CHANGE ANYTHING DO NOT DELETE ANYTHING and frantically start copying key folders to the iMac’s desktop, not knowing whether the machine has anything like enough memory to hold that much data.

Meanwhile… The MacBook, the one whose repairs absorbed some six hours of driving time, days of down time, and hour after hour of fuckup-recovery time, is NOT fixed. Last night it started shutting down again. Same story: PLINK, out of the blue. Reboot, find there’s plenty of power on the battery, data has been lost, pages have disappeared, fuckups have been fucked up. Last night I call Apple’s 24-hour service and reach a tech in Australia. Explain that this saga is beginning to wear on me. She says with AppleCare I have two or three in-house visits coming. She tries to set this up but because of course Apple has gone to bed in this country, she can’t get through. Gives me a phone number to call.

Reach one of Apple’s accelerated AppleCare dudes here. He says well, that would be true if we were in Australia, but it doesn’t apply in the US. I complain about the interminable drive to Scottsdale, now that the bastards have closed down the central Phoenix store. He says they have a deal where they will send me a shipping box and cover the cost of FedExing it to the repair dudes and FedExing it back to me.

Well. That’s better than a hit on the head, anyway. Best of all would be if you could FIX the damn thing.

Finish copying stuff to the iMac’s desktop, including all The Copyeditor’s Desk’s present and past client data.

By now it’s getting dark.

Take the dog for a doggy walk. She lunges onto a neighbor’s lawn to have a good grass-wallow and then launches into one of the worst episodes of reverse-sneezing she’s ever had. If you’ve never seen a dog doing the reverse-sneeze thing: it’s much like a kind of seizure. Even if you know the dog will get over it, the dog doesn’t know that. And the dog tends to panic. Now Ruby is wheezing and gasping for air and shaking all over her little body in terror.

Whenever she gets to the point where she can more or less breathe again, I have to pick her up and carry her the quarter-mile back to the house. Jolly fun.

Day from Hell…

Can You Support Your Parents?

Lenten thanks, Day 18

Thank God for Franklin D. Roosevelt.

So the Republicans are getting ready to go after Social Security and Medicare. Some of their followers don’t even seem to be rational. Here’s one who remarks that if Social Security goes, “no one is going to be hurt by it.”

Yeah. No one but the kids.

You know, if it were not for Social Security, I could not stay in my home. I wouldn’t be able to pay the property taxes, and pretty soon the County would come and evict me. I would be living on the streets right now, today. The house my son is living in would have been foreclosed by now, since without my salary and Social Security, we wouldn’t have a hope of making payments on the upside-down mortgage. And that is with a retirement nest egg that’s 3.3 times larger than the average 50- to 60-year-old’s.

In a culture where families fly apart as the kids reach adulthood, where the elderly are objects of disdain and discrimination, where you’ll have a tough time getting a job if you’re laid off at 45 and no chance at all if you’re in your 60s, where a man is considered not a man if his mother lives with him, where the elderly are expected to live on their own until they’re sent off to a nursing home, who exactly is going to take care of the old folks when they can no longer work?

Without Social Security and Medicare, my choices would be to depend on my son to house me, feed me, and cover my healthcare costs or to live on the street until I die, which would happen in short order. Ours is not a culture like Revanche’s, where young people expect to care for their parents no matter how much strain it puts on their own lives. Most Americans would expect their parents and troublesome siblings to fend for themselves.

This is true for a large portion of the elderly in our country. Get rid of the so-called “entitlement” programs—into which we have paid all our lives—and you’ll end up consigning huge numbers of older Americans to dire poverty. Responsibility for supporting them will fall to their adult children, who don’t have the resources to care for elderly, unemployable parents.

Will you be willing to take your parents in after they can no longer work? Oh, you say you don’t want Mom and Dad living in your spare bedroom? You don’t want them in your face all day, every day, telling you how to raise your kids and how to live your life. Well, then, are you prepared to pay their rent? Can you cover the property taxes on their paid-off home?

And when you discover the cat food in the pantry (they don’t have a cat, interestingly enough), will you shell out a couple hundred a month to buy groceries for them? When you find out that they’re too frail to get groceries for themselves, will you run to the grocery store once or twice a week and stock up on microwavable food for them?

Are you willing to pay for your parents’ healthcare? Sure you are. But can you? Can you afford to buy insurance for an elderly person who already has chronic health problems? And if they can’t get insurance at all (which they can’t, because of the chronic health issues), are you in a position to pay for their health care out of pocket? You do know, no doubt, how much treatment for a heart condition costs?

How many of you who are younger and midlife adults see yourselves, seriously, as willing and able to care for your parents when they get too old work? Take a look at these excellent young people who are coming up behind you…see any of them planning to support Mom and Dad in old age?

In the post linked above, Revanche asks readers if they have a plan for taking care of their parents when the old folks can no longer care for themselves. Do you? If you’re under about 35 or 40, you’d better get one.

And by the way, who’s going to support you when you get too old or sick to work, and the stock market crashes right at the moment when you can no longer hold down a job?

Image: Elephant near Ndutu Lodge. nickandmel2006. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Social Security Outcome: Positive!

Well! So I march up to the North Phoenix Social Security office just as they’re opening the doors. The place is mobbed—turns out every holiday creates a backlog the following Monday morning.

Wait about half an hour for my number to be called. Present the mystifying letter to the highly professional youngish woman behind the window.

And lo!

The number in the letter does not represent a gross payment (as in previous correspondence). It’s a net payment! So the $1021.70 “regular monthly payment” represents a $64 increase, not a $236 cut in pay.

That’s if we believe this particular representative, something experience suggests is an iffy proposition. She says my gross benefit has increased to something over $1,300. Why? Because of the $14,400 I’ve earned this year!

Apparently if you keep working and keep paying FICA after you’ve claimed Social Security, they adjust your benefits upward for as long as you continue to earn.

If this is true, it’s good news. It should cover inflation in 2011—Social Security recipients again will not get a cost of living increase, because of course we all know that the costs of groceries and gasoline and utilities haven’t increased over the past year and surely won’t go up next year.

However, I’ll believe it when I see the money in the bank. It strikes me as way too good to be true.

Jousting with the Bureaucrats…Again!

In an hour and a half, it’s off to the Social Security office to do battle with the bureaucracy again. I’m going to try to be there when the door opens.

Apparently they’re cutting my benefit by something over $235 a month. The reason? I earned more than they thought so they’re raising my benefit.

Huh? you ask.

Yeah, that’s exactly what I thought.

Friday afternoon, this amazing communication arrived by snail-mail:

We checked our records to seer if any changes in your benefits are necessary.

We are increasing your benefit amount to give you credit for additional earnings which were not included when we figured your benefit before.

What We Will Pay and When

You will receive a payment on or about December 8, 2010 for $1,442.40. This payment includes both your new regular monthly benefit and benefits due from January 2010, the month of the increase, through November 2010.

After that you will receive your regular monthly payment of $1,021.70.

WTF?!?? My regular benefit is and has been, since the start, $1,257.50. The “new” monthly payment with its “increase” is a $236 cut in pay!

Looking back over the correspondence I’ve received from the Social Security Administration over the past year, I see that at one point they decided my benefit was $1068.40. I must not have noticed that; otherwise I would’ve had a shitfit at that point…more likely, I imagined that was the net amount. The fact is, though, the figures in these memos are always gross amounts, way, way, way off from what really lands in your bank account. At any rate, that figure never materialized: the gross payment has always been $1,257, and that’s the amount they took away from me for the crime of earning such a vast amount in part-time adjunct teaching that I owed $340 in extra taxes.

Evidently, the SSA can at any moment decide to change your benefit amount, and evidently whatever they’ve been doing based on whatever they figured sometime in the past is moot.

Isn’t it interesting how they invariably send these damn things so they appear in your mailbox on a Friday afternoon after their offices are closed? Then you get to stew about it over the weekend.

In fact, this meant I got to work over the weekend, instead of having time to myself as planned. A raft of student papers was due at 11:59 last night. Spending half the day at the SS office will mean I won’t have enough time to read an entire batch of papers today, unless I work until midnight. So, to stave off a half-overnighter, I spent Sunday afternoon reading the papers that came in early. Fortunately, that included about half of them, so there should only be about three or four hours of work to do today.

But that was not what I wanted to do with Sunday afternoon.

Gotta love those insurance companies…

Wellcare, the outfit I selected (among dozens) to handle my Medicare Part D insurance—that’s prescription drug coverage—just sent me a package to plow through: TWO HUNDRED AND TWENTY-FIVE PAGES of dense, incomprehensible copy to try to figure out!

The booklet you’re supposed to start with, which explains annual changes to the plan, is twelve pages long. Apparently every single year you have to study all this garbage, try to decide if you can live with the changes they’ve come up with, and, if you can’t, try to find another insurance company whose terms you can live with, if any such thing exists.

This year they’re raising the prescription drug coverage from $19.70 to $23.80, or $285.60 a year.

That doesn’t sound like much, except for the fact that you don’t get much for your $285.60 a year. The yearly deductible is $310, so in fact before this thing starts to pay for prescriptions, you pay $595.60 out of pocket. Then it only covers $2,840 until you reach the “doughnut hole.” When your prescriptions have racked up a $2,840 bill (easy to do if you have cancer, diabetes, MS, Parkinson’s, or any of the numerous other ailments of old age), then you’re screwed. You then have to cough up $4,550 for your meds, at which point you reach what Congress in its wisdom has decided is the “Catastrophic Coverage” stage. Then you pay $2.50 for the drugs the company approves, $6.30 for brand-name drugs (many drugs do not come in generic form, you know), or 5 percent of the total cost. Again: Five percent of cancer drugs could add up to one whopping bill.

So really, you’re paying almost $600 for what amounts to only $2,840 worth of coverage. For the cost, it’s very chintzy.

All these plans are about the same: they’re required to provide approximately the same coverage with about the same terms. So, buying a more expensive plan won’t help you, except insofar as some plans apparently are a little more or a little less generous about what types and brands of drugs they’ll cover.

To figure out whether anyone else is offering a comparable drug plan for a lesser price, I’ll have to get a ten- or fifteen-page list from the state SHIP department, plow through that, negotiate telephone punch-a-button mazes to order up information from several insurance companies, and then plow through thirty- to forty-page piles of paper from each of those. Like I have time to do that, and like I could understand what any of that verbiage means, anyway.

Medicare Part D coverage is highly restrictive. To keep you from understanding exactly how restrictive it is, insurance companies have set up a complicated four-tier system involving generic, “preferred generic,” “preferred brand,” and “nonpreferred brand” drugs. It is so baroque as to be incomprehensible. According to the booklet my company sent, some drugs, apparently chosen arbritrarily, can cost you nothing if you order them from WellCare’s pharmacy. Once you start ponying up cash or daring to do business with the nearest drugstore, though, the least you will pay is $36. Yes: per prescription.

Some generics and “preferred brand” drugs can cost you $123 per prescription! Then you get to the Tier 3 “generic and nonpreferred brand drugs,” where you’ll pay $282 per prescription!

Think of that: $282 for a bottle of pills.

To further confuse matters, they move drugs from tier to tier. This year, we’re told, “Some drugs will be in a lower cost-sharing tier; others will be in a higher cost-sharing tier.” So, if you have a chronic disease, chances are you’ll have to change drugs once a year as the companies jack up the cost by moving them up a tier or two.

Evidently they’re supposed to give you some sort of discount on drugs once you tumble into the doughnut hole, but that’s not evident in the 12 pages of daunting gobbledygook in the summary booklet. It says here that the new healthcare legislation, which our Republican friends are campaigning to get rid of, “continues to close the coverage gap, or ‘doughnut hole,’ by reducing the percentage of cost-sharing for beneficiaries in the gap. Effective January 1, 2011, drug manufacturers will provide a 50 percent discount on brand-name drugs and the government will provide a 7 percent discount on generic drugs for those who fall into the coverage gap (Sec. 1101, HR 4872). This is in addition to a $250 rebate, effective in 2010, for beneficiaries who reach the coverage gap.”

All very nice, but it doesn’t change the fact that the doughnut hole amounts to $4,550 and that if you get seriously ill, which all of us will unless we drop dead of a heart attack or are killed instantly in a car wreck, you’re going to be out the cost of your premiums plus the cost of your deductible plus the vast out-of-pocket costs of the doughnut hole. For my modestly priced plan, that would amount to $5,146, not counting the costs of copays ranging from $12 to $235 per prescription.

What we have here is one real good reason why I don’t want to go to the doctor for my bellyache. Don’t know what I’d be getting into…and if it’s anything that requires a lot of drugs, well…

After a month and a half of general misery, I’m pretty sure that whatever is ailing me is probably serious. If it weren’t, it would have passed by now. But with Social Security confiscating an entire month’s benefit—$1,275 gross, $975 net—after my having struggled through a whole summer without enough income to cover my expenses, I’m flat broke. I simply do not have money to pay for doctors and drugs.

What this partnership with despotic private insurance companies actually insures is that seniors will delay going to doctors as long as they can. That actually pushes up costs, because by the time you get to the doctor whatever is ailing you will have reached an advanced stage, which will cost more to treat.

Some puppies are pleased that we lazy, greedy old bustards who oughta get a job won’t see a cost of living increase from Social Security in 2011, for the second year in a row. WellCare’s premium is the smallest part of my Medicare bill. If it’s gone up $4, you can be sure the much more expensive Medigap policy will go up even more. I’m already ponying up $90 a month (God only knows what it’ll be in 2011) to another private plan to cover the many lacunae in the government plans (Part A and Part B), and Part B itself, costs $111 a month for rather skimpy coverage.

With Part D, you have the option of taking a chance that you won’t get sick and won’t need a lot of drugs before you croak over. There’s no law that says you have to buy Part D coverage. (If you think the game doesn’t play out in favor of the table at Vegas, then by all means take this bet!)  But if you don’t get it at the first opportunity when it’s offered to you, then the cost goes way, way up: effectively, you’re punished for not buying insurance from private corporations until you think you’re actually likely to need it.

Nor is there any law that says you have to buy Part B. But you’d be a fool if you didn’t, unless you’re already so poor as to qualify for Medicaid. Part A is roughly the equivalent of major medical. It doesn’t cover much.

So far it appears the Medigap coverage works pretty well, though I haven’t used it except for the useless follow-up care for the torn rotor cuff, which I can’t afford to have repaired because I can’t afford to take a semester off my part-time job. So to date, I’ve paid $90 a month for air. Presumably next year the cost of air will even higher.

For $111 a month plus all the Medicare taxes I’ve paid and still pay on every dime I scrape together, Medicare should cover everything—without forcing beneficiaries to open their wallets wide to the rapacious insurance industry.

The Divide by 4 Percent Rule?

Frugal Scholar has been ruminating about an idea inspired by something Jacob of Early Retirement Extreme wrote to the effect that you can get a rough preview of how much you need to retire by dividing the annual cost of an item (or, by extension, a set of items) by 4 percent.

Jacob’s theory is that you can calculate the amount you’ll need to cover the cost of, say, your daily coffee habit by figuring the annual cost and multiplying by .04, the “canonical” 4 percent withdrawal rate. His idea is that you will figure out how much savings you’ll need to support each of your various expenses in retirement, and, because these will be smaller than the daunting total, you’ll feel a) more motivated to work toward each smaller goal and b) less inclined to diddle away money on unnecessary purchases. In his example, if you spend $50 a month on groceries, you’ll need $15,000 in savings ($50 x 12 ÷ .04) to sustain your eating habit through retirement. A more realistic $300 a month would require a stash of $90,000.

Holy mackerel! What fodder for the neurotic frugalist!

So naturally I had to whip out the calculator. Do I have enough to sustain me through the end of my life at a 4 percent drawdown?

We know expenses are, at most, $2,045 a month. This is the amount I budget, even though the truth is expenses go that high only during the pricey summer months, when utility bills hover near the stratosphere.

$2045 x 12 – $24,540
$24,450 ÷ .04 = $613,500

So the answer is hell, no, I most certainly do not have enough to sustain me through old age. When last seen, total cash holdings came to about $488,000. I’m doomed!

Or am I?

My actual maximum monthly out-of-pocket costs are not $2,045, because they’re defrayed by net income from Social Security. In reality, the amount I have to come up with to support myself in my present penurious splendor is “only” $1,070, or $12,840 a year.

$12,840 ÷ .04 = $321,000

In that light, retirement looks a lot more doable, even on my pretty modest savings.

The problem, of course, is that it doesn’t take into account the effect of inflation, at least not in any realistic way. To manage that $12,840 from a 4 percent drawdown without draining my savings over a 25- or 30-year period, I will have to keep most of my money fully invested in stocks and bonds. No CDs for this little chick! A CD doesn’t earn enough to allow a 4 percent drawdown—at that rate your savings would disappear pretty quickly. And CD rates do not track inflation effectively, mostly because they’re so low they don’t generate enough income to keep grand-baby in shoes.

And as we know, the market is highly unreliable. Lose $180,000, as I did in the late, great crash of the Bush economy, and your income drops dramatically. In that event, if you’re drawing down 4 percent, you’ll have no chance of building your nest egg back up to a point where it will support you. If today I lost $180,000 again, a 4 percent return on the remainder would be $12,320, less than I need to survive even with Social Security.

One thing is as certain as death and taxes: the market will go down again. Whatever goes up must come down; the market follows that fundamental rule of physics, if in a metaphorical way. And it’s safe to assume that inflation will return. It could return with a vengeance, given the overall sickness of the world’s economy.

What this means is that, unless you’re very wealthy, you’re left with only one course of action: keep working until you drop.

Right now I’m not pulling down any retirement fund money, because I’m scraping together enough by part-time teaching to cover my costs. I intend to keep teaching as long as I can dodder into the classroom, which I figure will be about another five years. After the age of 70, I probably won’t be able to do it any more. Then I’ll be forced to use savings to live on.

Well. I don’t feel too worried about my own future.

But I sure do worry about my son’s. Given that most Americans now earn low rates of pay and can expect, with competition from Third-World countries stealing jobs as fast as water can drizzle out of a half-open tap, to see pay continue to fall, and given that the Republicans have come as close as they dare to saying aloud that they intend to get rid of Social Security, what are our kids going to do in old age?

I fear most of our sons and daughters will not be able to look forward even to semiretirement: that they will have to plan on working—full-time, not at some part-time gig—until they are too infirm to work at all. Experience tells us that no matter how much you love your job (and most jobs available today are anything but lovable), after 15 or 20 years, you’re royally sick of it. After 20 or 30 years, you need to retire, for your health and your sanity’s sake. Without Social Security, that will not be possible for most Americans.