Two things happened at my house not long ago: My wife turned 65, and one of our credit cards expired. Not very interesting in themselves perhaps, but the two events occurring together set up what scientists call a "natural experiment."
Turning 65 made Susan eligible for Medicare. That meant, at last, we could stop paying her Blue Cross premium. Because we pay our bills by autopay, I had to tell Blue Cross to deduct her portion of our premium from the monthly charge. And because the expiring credit card is the one we use to autopay our other "service providers," I had to tell the homeowners and auto insurance companies, the cable company and the utilities to update the card.
Everyone knows that communicating with these institutions is crazy-making. That fact doesn't need further empirical support. But this was a chance to do some social science. I just had to clock the time it took to accomplish the two changes and compare the results.
Here's the punchline: Update credit card information — 34 seconds. Take Susan's Blue Cross premium off autopay — six weeks.
Updating the credit card information couldn't have been simpler. Each company has a website, and each website has a prominent, clear menu item called "Update Method of Payment." I clicked the box, entered the card number and new expiration date, and hit "Submit." A confirming email arrived in seconds. Seconds.
Getting Susan off our Blue Cross autopay was a different matter. From what I gather, she is the first person to turn 65 in the history of Blue Cross, and the system just has no mechanism to deal with it.
I started by calling the customer service number on my insurance card. Everyone knows the drill. They were experiencing unusually high call volume, but they thoughtfully provided "music" for me to listen to while I waited. They put me through to their automated system where I entered my account number and my birth date and my passcode. A robot read me my balance and my payment due date and talked to me about things that had nothing to do with the purpose of my call.
We went round and round until I was finally able to get a human being on the phone, and then he and I started back at the beginning. He needed to get my name and account number and birth date and passcode. And he needed to put me on hold while he checked for the answer to my question. I listened to the same six bars of "music."
When he came back, he said the form I needed was on their website. He told me the name of the form and where it would be. He made it sound simple.
I went to the website and found layer after layer of security questions and boxes to fill out, but no trace of the form. After going round and round on the website for an hour, I got to a message that said: "If you still have questions, call the customer service number on your insurance card."
By the time I went through the whole process again and got to a human being, I was not feeling friendly. I confess I was rude to the person on the phone. Susan tells me not to be rude to such people. She reminds me they are just trying to make a living, and they are not responsible for the malevolence of the system they work for. She is right, of course, but the people who are responsible for the malevolence of the system are not the ones they put on the phone.
This time, despite my rudeness, the person on the phone was charming and friendly; I was disarmed. She told me she understood my frustration and she promised she would personally put the form I needed in the mail. Three days later a hand-addressed envelope arrived and in it was … the form to select a new pediatric dentist.
I called the broker who sold us our Medicare plan. He was able to communicate with Blue Cross through some secret back channel, and, in a few days, he emailed me the form I needed. I signed it and sent it to Blue Cross. But all is not well.
Blue Cross keeps sending me contradictory messages. They send me emails that say I have payments due, and my coverage will terminate if I don't pay them. They direct me to their website. The website agrees I have payments due, but says the amount is $0.00.
I don't have the stomach to call customer service and try to straighten this out. My plan is just not to get sick for the next few months until I, too, turn 65 and go on Medicare.
We're told that voicemail systems are efficient and cost-saving, and that multiple layers of security questions and passwords are there for our protection. What my little experiment shows is that this is horse hockey.
When you want to give them money, the process is remarkably quick and easy. When you want to stop giving them money, the process becomes infinitely complicated.
Barry Goldman is an arbitrator and mediator and the author of "The Science of Settlement."