The Man Behind the Curtain

Blue Shield wants to know why your health plan sucks.

Actually, the real pitch is that they want to hear all your insurance experiences — “the good, bad and the unbearable — Don’t hold back. We can take it,” their ad says.

Well, they must be suckers for abuse. They have collected about 2,000 stories so far from their “chatbox” which was out in front of the Capitol on Wednesday. In the course of a day, hawkers heard from people denied, overcharged, or just plain patronized by insurance companies (the identities of the offending health plans were kept confidential so as not to malign insurers too much.)

Both the tactic and the story-collecting apparatus were brilliant. (View a picture of the chatbox here.) Essentially, you poke your head in a gigantic box (that kinda looks like a clothing collection box for WEAVE) and speak to a television screen, where the disembodied head of the interviewer asks you about your bad experiences. The Max Headroom-like “director” is actually sitting inside the box on the other side of the TV camera.

On the one hand, it’s really nice that Blue Shield is saying they care. They asked questions about how they felt about customer service. They probably will get a lot of people wondering with increasing deductibles and co-payments, what the real value of health coverage is. (They said they will feature many of these “disembodied heads” on their website.)

But it’s unclear if this is actual consumer outreach and feedback, or if it just marketing. Along with the mock hospital ID bracelets and cheekily-labeled bottled water, they were also giving out brochures describing the various Blue Shield products.

It could also be a tool for policy action: for a few years now, Blue Shield has had its own plan for health reform. At least they have supported the goal of universal coverage, and been a constructive contributor to the debate, even if we at Health Access often have significant policy disagreements with them.

But on the other hand, if they cared about universal coverage, such action could start at the street level. Some of the hawkers who were paid to peddle Blue Shield’s sympathy should have been in front of the camera themselves. They were uninsured.

Health Access California promotes quality, affordable health care for all Californians.

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