Friday, April 29, 2011

Healthcare: Where simple things get hard

Regular readers of this blog – both of you – may recall me describing a small dispute over a medical bill, and how I was grateful to Anthem Blue Cross for stepping up and agreeing to take care of it (see "A health insurer admits it's wrong").

Well, like so many things in the American healthcare system, it didn't turn out quite that simple.

First, Anthem didn't pay the bill, as I had thought. They cut the amount I owed from $61.50 to $49.41 based on their contract rates with MemorialCare (operator of Long Beach Memorial hospital). I still had to pay the $49.41, which would be applied to our annual deductible. OK, fine.

But MemorialCare continued to bill me for $61.50. Yesterday, I called MemorialCare and the woman I spoke to said that they had never received any notice of an adjustment from Anthem. So I called Anthem. The representative I spoke to there sounded actually rather indignant that the MemorialCare was still billing us for the original amount, and immediately called them. She promised to call me back, but never did. Sigh.

So I called again today. I spoke to Anthem representative Emma, who immediately set up a conference call with myself and MemorialCare representative Betty. Emma politely explained the issue, while Betty snippily retorted that they had never gotten a notice from Anthem adjusting the bill. Emma politely said she would fax it, while Betty snippily asked, "Is it the EXACT same thing you mailed us? Because if it isn't they won't accept it." (My thought: "You say you never received the mailed statement – how would you know if it was the exact same thing?')

So perhaps this will all be settled now (I hope). But the bigger issue is this: This whole dispute boils down to just $12.09 – the difference between what Anthem says we owe and what MemorialCare says we owe. Yet it has taken months to resolve, with numerous phone calls, faxes, mailed bills and statements. Multiply this kind of inefficiency and waste by millions of different claims and you can see why healthcare costs keep going up.


(Please support this blog by clicking on an ad.)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

No advantage with AAdvantage: The hunt for an award seat

I had a poor experience today with American Airlines's AAdvantage frequent flier program. I tried to book two different flights three months out using frequent flier miles yet American told me there were no award seats at all available on those routes, on any of three different days.

I generally have had positive experiences with American Airlines. Last year, for example, my family flew American to Costa Rica, and I was pleased by the airline's service.

This time I asked about two one-way trips: From Long Beach, California, to Seattle on July 17 or 18, and from Seattle to Bozeman, Montana, on July 22. American doesn't fly those routes, but its partner, Alaska Airlines, has four flights a day from Long Beach to Seattle, and two a day from Seattle to Bozeman.

I thought that calling three months ahead would have given us a shot at an award seat, but American's phone representative's said there were no seats, for any number of miles, on any of the 10 flights on those days. What's the point of a frequent flier program if you can't use the miles?

I was also bothered that I couldn't do this search online. Yes, you can search online for award seats available on American flights, but to check for for AAdvantage availability on Alaska flights, the only option is to call, wait on hold and talk to someone. Certainly, there must be a way to remedy that.


(Please support this blog by clicking on an ad.)

Friday, April 15, 2011

Book review: "Lost in Shangri-La" by Mitchell Zuckoff

“Lost in Shangri-La” is a wonderfully written book about the 1945 crash of an American military plane and the effort to rescue the survivors from a remote valley in New Guinea. It’s a great story, thoroughly researched and well told by author Mitchell Zuckoff.

In some ways, the story plays out like a movie, and the book benefits from a wonderful “cast.”  The three survivors are beautiful WAC corporal Margaret Hastings, Sergeant Kenneth Decker, who is suffering from a severe head injury, and handsome lieutenant John McCollom, whose twin brother died in the crash but who overcomes his grief to take charge. They are met in the valley by seemingly menacingly natives who have never had contact with the outside world.  Soon, a bold young American named Earl Walter leads a team of paratroopers coming to the survivors’ rescue.

Importantly, Zuckoff tells the story not just from the Americans’ point of view, but also from the natives’, avoiding a simplistic civilized-man-versus-the-savages storyline. Despite the early fears, the natives do not prove hostile, but since the two sides are unable to communicate verbally they have some comic misunderstandings. In one case, after Walter and his paratrooper squad arrive in the valley, they find the natives hugging and squeezing them. Walter becomes convinced that the residents believe that he and his men are women, so he orders his paratroopers to strip naked.  In fact, the natives were simply puzzled by their Americans’ “second skin” – their clothes – and are more astonished by their sudden nudity.

Hastings, as the only woman among the Americans, is the focal point of the book, as she was for the rescuers and for U.S. newspapers covering the rescue at the time. Excerpts from her diary show her maturing during the ordeal, her initial fear of the natives eventually growing into respect as she got to know them.

If the book has a weak point it’s about halfway through when reality intrudes and, well, not that much happens. Still, the ending offers some fresh drama as Army officials turn to an unorthodox strategy to bring the Americans out of the isolated valley.

I liked that the publisher inserted pictures at the appropriate place in the book, rather than bunching them all in the middle. I also liked that Zuckoff provides follow-up on the people in the book to tell us what happened to them in the rest of their lives.

Note that there is a "Cast of Characters" chapter at the end for reference in case you get confused about who is who.


(Please support this blog by clicking on an ad.)

Monday, April 11, 2011

Review: "Touching the Void" by Joe Simpson

This is the story of Joe Simpson's extraordinary ordeal and miraculous survival while climbing in the Peruvian Andes. While the book is not quite as extraordinary as his ordeal, it's still pretty good.

Simpson takes the reader along practically step-by-step as he and partner Simon Yates make a difficult climb up the mountain Siula Grande. He falls and breaks his leg high on the mountain, takes a 100-foot fall into a crevasse while trying to descend, then crawls and hobbles for three days to camp after Yates leaves him for dead. He openly shares his emotions and pain as he repeatedly faces what seem to be certain-death situations.

It's an often gripping story. Even though it's clear that Simpson ultimately survives (how else could he write the book?), I still read eagerly on to see exactly how he would do it. A nice addition to the tale are some small portions written from Yates' perspective.

That said, I do have a few issues with the book. First, even though it's only 172 pages, it's too long. This really should be more of a long magazine article, rather than a short book. Most of the first third of the story – the climb up to the summit, before Simpson breaks his leg – is probably of interest only to serious climbers. Also, while it is nice that Simpson shares his experience in so much detail, he overdoes it. As he struggles agonizingly toward camp, his descriptions of his pain, his doubts and his fear of death get repetitive. I found myself skimming ahead to the next key event.

I was disappointed in the photos in the book, which are printed on plain stock, rather than glossy, paper. Many of them are dark and murky.

Finally, the book comes to a strange and abrupt end. The brief postscript is too short and rather cryptic, and doesn't include any information on what ultimately happens to the other figures in the book, Simon Yates and their campmate Richard.

Still, if you like adventure stories, you'll find a lot to like in this book.


(Please support this blog by clicking on an ad.)

Monday, April 4, 2011

Geno Auriemma couldn't be wrong, could he?

After the University of Connecticut women's basketball team lost Sunday in the national semifinals, Coach Geno Auriemma said a big factor was that his team committed fouls
– apparently for the first time all season.

"We don't foul," Auriemma said. "We proved that in the first (half). We spent the entire year not fouling. Then all of a sudden in the first 10 minutes of the second half, I guess we just decided to start fouling."

Curiously, season statistics show that UConn was called for 478 fouls this season. Some might find it amazing that the refs could blow so many calls, but since the Huskies don't foul, what else can we conclude?


(Please support this blog by clicking on an ad.)

Friday, April 1, 2011

How NPR made me feel foolish

NPR had a report today that said people are getting eye surgery so they can watch 3-D movies and TV without wearing "those ridiculous glasses."  It turned out it was an April Fools Day joke, but I was totally taken in.

Those of you who got the joke are now saying, "C'mon, it was SO obvious. How could you not know it was a fake?"

Well, yes, getting surgery to watch 3D movies does seem pretty ridiculous, but I live in Southern California where people do ridiculous things to their bodies all the time. Pec implants, anyone? Nipple ring? How about injecting poison (Botox) into your skin?

This report was done in totally straight NPR style so it wasn't obvious that it was a joke unless you listened to it carefully. I bet there's a lot of people like me who are sort of half-listening to NPR while driving. Sure, I thought the report was real, but at the time I was also not trying hit anyone as I changed lanes. I didn't hear the sly reference to April 1, 2012 – the only nod toward April Fools Day. It wasn't until later that someone mentioned the story that I discovered it was a joke.

In the end, rather than enjoying a good laugh, I feel like NPR sucker-punched me.

You can hear the "story" here.


(Please support this blog by clicking on an ad.)