Earlier this year, I wrote a piece about the frustration of dealing with large bureaucracies on behalf of my mother, who is in a memory care facility and can’t handle any of the aspects of her financial life. Here’s what I wrote about one of those agencies:
Yesterday, I needed to know something about my mother’s Medicare account so I could fix a problem with one of her providers. The woman I spoke to at Medicare informed me that, because I haven’t been authorized to access Mom’s account, the HIPAA law bars her from sharing any of its details with me. I asked, “How do I get authorized?” She replied that if I could put my mother on the phone for 5-6 minutes and ask her some questions, that would do it. I explained that my mother can’t concentrate on the same thought for more than 5-6 seconds, let alone minutes, because of the effects of this dreadful disease. I asked if there was an alternate route I could take.
The woman told me to look at a specific page on the Medicare.gov website via Mom’s online account, where I could request the authorization form. I told her my mother had never set up an online account, and when I had tried to do it for her, it needed a piece of information I did not have — the month and year her Plan A coverage began. So, could this woman please provide me with that date? No, I was told, because I’m not authorized.
I knew that would be the answer, but I continued, asking if there is a third option. She said yes, we can send it to the address we have on file for Mom. Since I wasn’t sure they had her current address (she’s only lived there for a few months), I asked, and of course I was told I’m not authorized to be given that information.
I was finally able to overcome those obstacles with Medicare, and haven’t had any hassles since — until this week, when I foolishly jumped back into the Pool Of Red Tape.
This time, I had to deal with Medicare’s sister agency, Social Security, to change the bank account where her monthly checks are direct deposited. I went on the SSA website to find the form, but discovered it can only be done through her MySSA account — which she doesn’t have. I tried to log in using the info I have for her Medicare account, but it wouldn’t accept it. I tried the old “forgot your password?” prompt, but when I entered my mother’s correct information, the site said it didn’t recognize those details. OK, this was what I expected, so I was still calm.
Next, I called the 800 number listed on the SSA site. After sitting through a 90-second recording from their automated system, I chose the option to speak with a human, and was immediately told no customer service reps were available, so I should call back some other time. There was no “please stay on the line, your call is important to us.” I wasn’t put on hold, I was hung up on. I did this twice a day for four days, never getting through to anyone with a pulse.
I moved on to my last resort — going to the local SSA office to speak with someone face to face. Having been there twice before on other business, I knew that there would be a wait of probably an hour, so I brought along my ear buds to listen to some podcasts and a newspaper to read. When I arrived, the very helpful armed guard (I mean that — the guy has to act as receptionist, saying the same things to everyone all day long, and is never less than a pleasure to deal with) told me the wait would be more like 90 minutes. Like the hundred or so people already in the waiting room, I had no choice, so I sat down and my frustration began to build.
This SSA office has 13 customer service windows, but I’ve never seen more than four of them staffed and open. More people on the other side of the glass would mean less waiting time for those of us on this side. It’s not just a matter of testing our patience. It’s that some of the reasons people go there shouldn’t even need much help. I’m thinking specifically of the five different women who walked in while I was waiting that merely wanted to fill out a form allowing them to change their last name after getting married. These were young ladies in their twenties and thirties who probably have jobs that allow them a half-hour lunch break, yet there was no way to accomplish their task in that amount of time in this office (or any other SSA facility, I’ve discovered).
If a supermarket ran this way, there would be people waiting to check out with carts full of food lined up all the way back to the toothpaste aisle. Eventually, most of those customers would give up, leave, and make their purchases elsewhere. But when you’re stuck in this hell at the SSA, there’s nowhere else to go.
The only other business I can think of that forces customers to wait that long just to get help is your average doctor’s office. Actually, it’s worse there because you can’t help but wonder what kind of ebola-like virus you’re contracting while sitting near the other patients, who are undoubtedly sicker and more contagious than you.
After an hour and a half of waiting, my number was finally called and I went up to the window. I didn’t complain, I didn’t make a scene, I just wanted assistance. Unfortunately, there was none forthcoming, as the clerk told me that if my mother can’t set up an account online, she’d have to come in to the office to do it in person. Even when I explained — as I did to the Medicare clerk so many months ago — that was impossible, he reiterated that was the only option. I finally got him to tell me that we could change the direct-deposit bank account if Mom called the SSA and answered some questions over the phone. I know she’s not up to that (particularly since the SSA phone system would never let us through!), but I was curious what kind of questions she’d have to answer. His reply: I can’t tell you that.
I’m all for digital solutions that make life easier, but what happens to those who can’t (for whatever reason) create an online account and access those resources? As I wrote in my Medicare piece, I can’t be the only American dealing with this problem on behalf of an elderly, dementia-riddled relative. But above and beyond that, the over-arching question remains: why should it take five days and all that in-person waiting to do any of this?