August 29th, 2007

new year

Insurance Follies

Last week we saw Michael Moore's movie SiCKO, and his websites invites people with medical system horror stories -- that's distinct from the tragedies of injury and illness, I think, although here they are usually well mixed -- to go public, to join together, to write to him, to do something.

Naturally I thought first about My Condition. Have I Told You About My Condition? The treatment of fibromyalgia and chronic pain does not seem to have advanced in the last ten years, from what I learned in the book I read about Chronic Pain Syndrome and compared to my experience in the health care system. But I'm already pretty public about that. I don't have to worry about an employer refusing me because I can't keep up an eight-hour day of work for more than a few days running. Many times I've been thankful that I didn't try to go back to work after this Condition showed up, six months post-partum (hmm, wonder what that could be about), because I would likely have worked myself into further crises and considerable worse shape before deciding to try on "disability" as my identity in the system. But I'm not disabled: I just have to take it easy, way easier than would actually like. And I still have the same insurance I had at work before it started, so it's not even a pre-existing condition.

But then I got to thinking about my experience working in the regulatory arm of the insurance industry, right after I got out of college. Actually it was the civil service of the State of Wisconsin, the Office of the Commissioner of Insurance, but at the time it already had installed the revolving door between regulators and insurance executives, agents, and employees. I saw it from the bottom up, because I started literally in the mail room. I was the mail clerk, who opened all the envelopes and delivered mail to every person in the office and so had to know what everybody did. After six months or so of that, I was encouraged to take a civil service exam to become a Consumer Services Specialist, and so I did that for another year or so. I read troubling, sometimes heartbreaking letters from citizens in various difficulties, and got to write boilerplate letters to the insurance companies to ask that they review their handling of the claims. And then I had to write back to the citizens to explain whether I could do anything, or whether anything had happened. I learned a lot. (And then later I worked for an insurance company for about a month, but that's another story.)

As with most of my life, it was a year far too crowded with incident. But I have notes in the files. I have copies of the letters I was particularly proud of writing. And I still have a pretty good memory. So I am going to write more about that for a while and see where it goes. Just the names on some of the old insurance company file folders I used are evocative, "Dairyland Casualty" or "Mammoth Life and Accident".

Yesterday I started reading Zimbardo's The Lucifer Effect which I had seen touted on The Daily Show quite some time ago. It begins with the first really detailed account of the Stanford Prison Experiments, and later goes on with the author's professional investigations of Abu Ghraib prison, among many other examples -- the social psychology of how normal people can do terrible things when they are in bad situations that encourage them to do evil, and part of systems that foster evil by their very design. By the end of the afternoon I was in a terrible mood and Mr S suggested maybe it was not just the weather.

So I have skipped to the happy ending of the book, which discusses the reverse, the psychology of heroism, the kind of aw-shucks heroism to which anybody can rise, in the right situation. Forrest Gump heroism, how to Do The Right Thing. Maybe I will go back and read more of the rest later, as it is mesmerising. But note Zimbardo has a detailed website to elaborate the practical principles he has drawn out of all this study of evil: how to resist bad influences and the seemingly irresistable social pressures of group culture when you have fallen into bad company.