How to do healthcare stupidly, online

The Internet is good at many, many things. Online doctor's visits, maybe not so much.

By Andrew Leonard

Published February 10, 2009 11:35AM (EST)

In the mail today, I received an official-looking document from an organization titled "Property Tax Reassessment." The document urged me to apply, strangely enough, for a "property tax reassessment." Looking remarkably as if it had come from a government institution, the letter informed me that it was likely that my property was significantly over-assessed and I could save lots of money. All I had to do was "detach and mail the coupon on the reverse side with your service fee of $179.00, on or before 02/26/2009."

I'm not going to pretend I wasn't suspicious. Alameda County is not normally in the habit of attempting to decrease the amount of property taxes I pay. The sentence in bold at the bottom of the letter -- "Property Tax Reassessment is not a government agency" -- was also something of a dead giveaway. But just for fun, I did some googling, and discovered numerous alerts regarding the scam. Excellent. If there's one life lesson I want to teach my children, it's google first, sign checks later. Of course, my children won't use checks as adults, they'll probably beam cash directly from their retinas, but you get the point -- the Internet is a very, very useful source of information. Maybe not so handy in figuring out definitively whether FDR's policies extended or ameliorated the Great Depression, but as a two-bit hoax-buster, it knows no peer.

I present this anecdote just to provide some context proving that I am not a neo-Luddite. Like the Dalai Lama, I may be slow to start twittering, but I pay my bills online, buy my books and music online, register for long bike rides online, et cetera. So when my doctor sent me an e-mail informing me that the health organization of which he was a part had recently implemented a new way to stay in touch with patients about "non-urgent healthcare needs" online, I did not reflexively gag and start moaning with nostalgia about the days when people wrote thank you notes with real quills on papyrus. I thought: cool -- I'll check it out. President Obama keeps talking about how getting everyone's medical records computerized and networked will save bazillions of dollars by bringing healthcare costs down -- maybe this was a first step.

I decided to use the system, RelayHealth, to ask a fairly innocuous question about whether there were any new treatments available for a non-serious ailment I have that a different doctor had told me five years earlier there wasn't any good medication for that didn't have significant side effects. I clicked my way through a tiresome number of Web pages and finally reached the point where I could compose my e-mail. Then I tried to send it. Not so fast: RelayHealth informed me I needed to place the question in a predetermined category. None of those offered seemed to fit the nature of my complaint comfortably, but "Toe Injuries" was more or less in the general ballpark, so I checked the box.

I was then informed that a "WebVisit" would be required, but not to worry, many health insurance plans now covered online "WebVisits." Uh-oh, I thought, but plodded ahead anyway and made sure my healthcare information was up-to-date.

Alas, my health plan did not cover this newfangled mode of doctor-patient communication, so before going any further I needed to authorize a payment of $25 via credit card.

Great Balls of Medical Balderdash Fire! My standard co-payment for a physical visit to my doctor is $15, and these jokers wanted me to pay $25 to send a friggin' e-mail?! Well, I tell you, I love the Internet a whole, whole bunch, but mama didn't raise no fool! That was absolutely ridiculous. I canceled out of that mess so fast my browser didn't even have time to crash. Then I threw the computer out the window, just to be safe.

OK, I did not throw the computer out the window. But I sure felt like it. All the promise of the Internet, betrayed by an organization that wanted to charge me $25 to ask my doctor a question. All I can say is, Obama better fix this.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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