As my bio indicates, I spent more than 25 years working in the private sector, primarily in equity research and investment banking for publicly traded securities firms. I, like many with private sector careers and nearly everyone even slightly right of center politically, take as an article of faith that the private sector is more efficient than the government at doing just about anything. However, when it comes to Social Security and Medicare (technically the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services or CMS) my experience over the past year indicates these agencies far exceed private sector insurers in quality of service.
In a single week in January 2016, I applied for Social Security, my wife applied for Medicare and my wife interacted over a billing issue with CareFirst, the Maryland Blue Cross / Blue Shield company. These interactions highlighted for me the contrasts between dealing with these two Federal government agencies and dealing with a private sector health insurer. I found the difference in quality in the government’s favor to be so dramatic that I thought it warranted a comment on my blog.
The quality differences with Social Security, Medicare and private insurers start online. The ssa.gov and medicare.gov websites are well designed and easy to negotiate and the online process to apply for Social Security and Medicare are clear, easy to understand and complete. Follow up correspondence from the agencies can be couched in bureaucratic language but is timely, understandable and alerts you and your spouse to possible benefits, like Social Security if one of you signs up for Medicare, help paying for drugs or the availability of spousal benefits.
After I recently filed online for Social Security benefits the agency had some questions. I was contacted via email by an agency employee within 48 hours of filing my application for benefits and asked to set up a time to talk. I received a call back from a claims specialist within the time slot to which we had agreed. She was very pleasant and enthusiastic, was able to resolve the questions she had and indicated she would move my application along with formal notification likely coming closer to the month in which my 66th birthday would occur. She clearly disclosed that the detailed guidelines for staff of Social Security changes included in the recently passed budget bill had not yet been prepared but agreed that May 1 was the deadline, which I had met, for various rules changes. In short, both my online and telephone interaction with a Social Security claims specialist were easy and pleasant and I believe they will prove effective.
My wife’s experience with Medicare and CareFirst involved only online experiences. With Medicare she was able to quickly and easily complete her Medicare application and has already received her notice of eligibility with coverage beginning in the month she will turn 65. She has yet to select Part B and Part D providers, which will be private insurers operating within Medicare requirements. Contrast this with her almost simultaneous online interaction with CareFirst, which has provided one or both of us with individual health insurance coverage for the last five years or so.
In January, our credit charge used to automatically pay my wife’s CareFirst monthly premium had some information change, so the automatic payment of her CareFirst premium had not gone through. This was communicated to her with conflicting emails, one auto-generated indicating the payment had been processed and another saying it had been rejected and she risk losing coverage if payment was not received. This led us to the CareFirst website, where we spent 10 – 15 minutes trying to find the right area to update the payment information and then another frustrating 15 minutes plus because the system would not allow us to update the information on the credit card. We finally realized we had to first delete the exist card on file for automatic payments and then enter the same card with updated information. But nowhere was this explained in instructions or in the repeated message that the system was unable to update the card on file.
We have previously had equally or more frustrating experiences with CareFirst online, over the phone and even going to an office and dealing with a person face to face when we initially tried to sign up for individual policies (pre Affordable Care Act Exchanges) and when I shifted from our joint policy to Medicare and we tried to keep coverage in place for my wife. The letter we received from CareFirst indicating we had first been approved for individual health insurance policies was so badly written that neither of us, despite two sets of graduate degrees, were able to understand it. It was only when we received a bill that we realized coverage had been approved. After going to a CareFirst office in person to remove me from our CareFirst coverage when I switched to Medicare but leave coverage in place for my wife, the company still miss-handled the conversion and my wife had to have a number of phone calls with the company before she was able to get her coverage continued. Lest you think this is only an issue with CareFirst, I have also found Medicare.gov much easier to negotiate than the websites of United Healthcare for Medicare Supplemental Insurance and websites of Medicare Part D drug coverage providers.
So, for seniors and their family members, take heart. Our experience indicates that Social Security and Medicare are much easier to deal with than your current private insurer. Kudos to the dedicated employees working at the Social Security Administration and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and keep up the good work. America’s seniors need you.
For all of us as citizens, we need to admit there are times when government works and may even work better than the private sector – despite what you will hear during this Presidential election year. And before you say it – the cost to operate Social Security and Medicare is also lower on a percentage basis than the cost to provide private insurance.