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On a dime, he almost lost health care

On a dime, he almost lost health care

By Dave Wedge

Friday, March 4, 2011

Blue Cross Blue Shield — the embattled insurance colossus that planted a controversial $11 million goodbye kiss on its former CEO — gave a swift kick in the pants to an elderly Peabody customer, threatening to cancel his prescription coverage unless he paid an overdue bill . . . for 10 cents.

“I called them up on the phone and said, ‘What the heck is going on here?’ ” 77-year-old Blue MedicareRx client Septimeo Murray Jr. told the Herald yesterday. “I said, ‘You can’t add 10 cents onto the next bill?’ It’s 10 measly cents and they’re going to take my health care away from me?”

The nickel-and-diming began in December, when Murray paid his monthly $183 bill to cover his prescription drugs for high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Murray sent a money order for the bill that was apparently 10 cents short.

“I made a mistake,” Murray said. “Three weeks later, I get a nasty letter stating that if I don’t pay 10 cents, they’re going to take my health insurance away.”

The letter, dated Dec. 22, 2010, states: “Our records show that we haven’t gotten payment for your Blue MedicareRx Value Plus plan premium. If we don’t get payment by 02/28/2011, we will have to disenroll you. . . . To avoid disenrollment, you must pay $0.10 by 02/28/2011.”

Sen. Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican who sits on the Legislature’s health-care committee, called the scenario “incredible.” “The absurdity of it is the cost of recovering the 10 cents. How many dollars were spent . . . to recover the 10 cents?” Tarr asked.

Blue Cross senior vice president Jay McQuaide said of the letter: “This should not happen.”

“We apologize to this member and to any other member who’s received this type of letter,” McQuaide said, adding that the company is looking into the matter.

Blue Cross spokeswoman Tara Murray said letters like the one received by Murray are automatically triggered by an overdue balance.

“There is a requirement that members be current with their premium payments,” Murray said. “We offer members 60 days to pay their past-due premiums and must administer this requirement uniformly for all members.”

The patient penny-pinching comes in the wake of news that Blue Cross gave an $11 million golden parachute to former CEO Cleve Killingsworth. The Herald reported yesterday that members of the part-time board that approved that severance package are paid up to $90,000 a year.

“The departure payment to Killingsworth and the payments to the board — it’s hard to reconcile that with attempts to control administrative costs,” Tarr said.

What do you think of executive payouts in health care? Join in the Friday Throwdown today, 12-1.

Sen. Brian Joyce (D-Milton), who also sits on the health-care committee, called Killingsworth’s package “absolutely outrageous.” “It flies in the face of our efforts to reduce health-care costs,” he said. “(Blue Cross) enjoys nonprofit, tax-exempt status, and I think we have to look very carefully at that.”

Another health-care committee member, Sen. Barry Finegold (D-Andover), called the elderly customer’s predicament “crazy” and the lucrative payouts “troubling.”

“We’re asking a lot of people, including doctors, consumers and nurses, and all are willing to give, and it’s very difficult when we have someone at an insurance company making that type of a salary,” Finegold said.

Murray, who drives a shuttle bus for an elderly apartment complex, said he’s always paid his tab on time and was able to retain his coverage after sending Blue Cross Blue Shield a check for 10 cents — although, of course, he had to cough up an additional 42 cents for the stamp.

“How can they do this to a person for a measly 10 cents? Are they that bad off?” Murray said. “It drove me crazy.”