Charles Petzold

The Idiots at HIP

December 2, 2008
New York, N.Y.

Because I'm self-employed, I pay for my own health insurance and I get it through an HMO called HIP, also known as HIP Health Plan of New York, an EmblemHealth company. My current monthly premium is $568.55, which I understand from my self-employed friends is not too bad.

But yesterday evening I opened a letter from Charles Mellia, Managing Director of Customer Service, informing me that my new monthly rate effective January 1, 2009 will be (deep breath) $1,453.04, representing an increase of over 150%.

Naturally this threw me into a state of total anguish. I quickly calculated that next year I would have to come up with more than $10,000 of additional income to pay for this rate increase. No, no! More than that! Because I'm not an incorporated business, I can't deduct my health insurance from my federal, state, and city income tax calculations, so the additional income I'll need is actually closer to $15,000.

And with this anguish came more anguish: Anguish over my plummetting income, anguish over book sales that plateau at 4,000 copies, anguish over my inability to get a decent book contract, anguish over my inability to get other work, etc, etc. Everything just piled up on top of everything else.

It wasn't a pleasant evening. Deirdre was at a class, and I couldn't talk to anybody at HIP because it was after hours and nobody was there.

Eventually I calmed down. I knew from past experience that the people at HIP are not too good with numbers, and they've done idiotic things in the past. A few years ago I changed my premium billing from semi-annually to monthly, and of course they screwed that up, and I had to spend some time on the phone walking them through the calculation.

Moreover, my years working at New York Life Insurance Company, mostly in Individual Health Insurance product development, resulted in my becoming very familiar with the New York State Insurance Department. I even took a business trip to the department in Albany one year. I knew they would never approve a rate increase of 150%.

I also did some Google searches for people expressing outrage that HIP had increased their premiums 150%, and I couldn't find anything. I became more convinced than ever this letter was just some typical stupid idiotic mistake.

This morning I called HIP again, and I was promptly connected to a "representative," and when I expressed my surprise at getting a rate increase of 150% I was assured that it was indeed correct and the increase was necessary because "we're in a recession." (Interesting that the letters were sent out before the official pronouncement of the recession.)

By this time, however, I was so convinced the letter was wrong, I wondered if my "representative" really understood what 150% meant. Lots of people — not just HIP employees — don't understand percentages, so I started quoting the actual numbers: $568.55 this year and up to $1,453.04 next year. "That's almost $900 more per month," I said, and finally he excused himself and I was on hold for ten minutes.

When he returned, he acknowledged that "those letters had gone out by mistake." My actual monthly premium next year would be $653.83, an increase of only 15%.

The idiots at HIP are supposed to be in the health care business, but how is receiving a notice of a premium increase of 150% good for my health? I lost several hours of my life in anguish over this thing, more time this morning on the telephone, and more time writing this blog entry to get the whole thing out of my system.

I emerged comparatively unscathed but I can easily imagine people reading such a letter from Charles Mellia, Managing Director of Customer Service, and keeling over on the spot.

Their death certificates would probably indicate "heart attack" but that wouldn't be the real cause of death, would it?