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Getting meds for an extended stay abroad

Posted by Lew Weinstein on May 7, 2007


If you’re going abroad for an extended stay – ours this year will be from late May to the end of October – you need to get all of your meds in advance to take with you.

Depending on your insurance company, the procedure will vary. I have chosen AARP for our Medicare supplement and prescription plans, and am generally satisfied with both. This year, however, AARP created some frustrating problems for me, and then, finally, at the executive level, solved them.

Here’s the story.

It began with little difficulty. I called AARP Rx customer service to review the procedure for getting what is called a “vacation override.” This is a once-a-year opportunity to get more than the normal quantity of drugs, justified because you’re going to be away from home at the time of the next scheduled refill.

I explained that both my wife and I had prescriptions for 90 day supplies of our meds, with 3 refills allowed past the initial order.

“Get your regular 90 day supply,” AARP told me, “and then have the pharmacist submit another 90 day request. That second request will be rejected. Then you call us (AARP Rx customer service). We’ll override the rejection and you’ll get the second 90 day supply.”

It worked exactly that way for Pat’s prescription, as it had for mine the previous year. But when I went through the procedure a week after Pat, something went awry.

After I received the initial 90 day supply, the second 90 day order was requested and rejected, as expected. I called AARP, as instructed, and was told that they would override the objection.

Later that day, however, the Walgreens pharmacist called with the news that AARP would not permit a 90 day override. “They said they will only approve a 30 day override.”

Here’s where the runaround and the misinformation began. Several hours of frustrating phone calls with several different AARP customer service people went something like this …

AARP … “The 90 day override is approved. Our computer record has the approval. Have the pharmacist re-submit and you’ll get it.”

This was told to me several times, but the pharmacist was told each time that only 30 day overrides were allowed.

Then, the AARP story changed. Instead of an approved 90 day override, I was now told, “It’s our policy to allow only 30 day overrides.”

“But you filled my wife’s 90 day override last week.”

“That was a mistake,” said yet another AARP representative – you can never speak to the same person twice – “The person who authorized that 90 day override was in error and will be corrected.”

Several appeals to “talk to your supervisor” yielded the same response. “It’s AARP’s policy only to approve 30 day overrides,” I was repeatedly told.

“So what should I do?”

“Maybe your doctor has some samples he can give you.”

“60 days worth of samples! Not likely.”

This was finally enough for me. I called the President of AARP in Washington DC, and spoke to someone who identified herself as an executive assistant to the President. She listened to my story and promised to look into it.

The next day, yet another customer service representative called and I went through the details, for perhaps the 8th time. The day after that, this same person called again and told me the 90 day override was available to pick up at Walgreens. (By the way, our pharmacist at Walgreens spent a lot of time on the phone with AARP and was very helpful. – thank you, Patrick)

“Is this a special exception to your policy of allowing only 30 day overrides?” I asked, concerned that I would have the same problem next year.

“You will not have the problem next year,” she said. “We don’t have a policy of limiting overrides to 30 days. Your problem was caused by an incorrect entry in the initial override request.”

“Let me get this straight,” I said. “Since AARP doesn’t have a 30 day override policy, why did all the AARP people tell me that AARP does have a 30 day override policy? Where did that come from, and why did so many people say that?”

“I don’t know,” she said, and neither do I.

I thanked the person who had actually solved my problem and hung up. An hour later, I got a followup call from the AARP President’s office to see if I had been contacted and if the problem had been solved. At that level, at least, AARP understands the meaning of customer service.

There are some lessons here …

1. Customer service departments are limited in what they can do. This experience with AARP is typical of too many customer service departments everywhere ( being one glorious exception). Representatives are trained to answer a small set of questions, which they do like robots. If your problem goes beyond their limited area of knowledge, they’re totally lost and unable to provide accurate answers. But they will never admit they don’t know. Instead, they seem to say just about anything that comes to mind. If the computer says 30 days, then it must be the policy, so a single incorrect entry into the system was transformed into an imagined company-wide policy, mindlessly repeated as gospel by several representatives and several supervisors. Nobody at that level was able, or willing, or allowed, to actually do the research and think through the problem.

2. Call the President’s office. I spent too much time, with too much attendant aggravation, dealing with people in AARP’s customer service departments. This included several supervisors of the front-line representatives, who gave me the same “30 day policy” story. The President’s office was able to have someone actually figure out what had happened and solve the  problem. Going “up the chain” is often time-consuming and unproductive. At some point, you should switch, go to the top, and allow them to work “down the chain.”

3. Don’t expect the people in customer service to give you the President’s telephone number. And most often, there won’t be an available listing for the Office of the President. You have to be creative. In this case, Pat found a number for AARP’s corporate media relations department and they in turn directed me to the President’s office. Departments of stockholder relations (for private companies) are also good routes.

4. You don’t need to actually talk to the President. An executive assistant to the President is the best possible person to help you. For an executive assistant, it’s not a good career move to fail to solve your problem (if it actually can be solved), because (a) you know their name and (b) the next call (or letter) will be to the President, who has hired them to prevent that from happening.

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international health insurance

Posted by Lew Weinstein on February 22, 2007

Medicare does not provide coverage outside the United States. The Medicare Supplement plan I purchased from AARP does provide emergency coverage for the first 60 days of your trip, but that’s not enough if you’re going abroad for five months.

The internet leads me to several choices. We settle on a policy with HTH Travel Insurance where Pat and I each have $1 million in coverage, including coverage for pre-existing conditions. We must maintain an underlying major medical policy in the U.S. There is no medical examination. The cost for both of us combined is about $10.00 per day.

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