You want health insurance with terrible customer service? Forget Obamacare–try Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois

There’s not much more to my post than the headline: I’ve just concluded my sixth phone call with BCBS of Illinois (having been hung up on the first five times by an automated phone tree which sends you directly to an automated service-satisfaction survey without first giving you any service to be satisfied about). This means I spent the better–or worse–part of two hours trying to find out why BCBS sent me a bill for my January premium I’d already paid on-line.

I went straight to Blue Cross to buy health insurance because I don’t qualify for a subsidy and didn’t see any reason to grapple with–or burden–healthcare.gov. But every time you hear that payments made on the government Website might not be transferring properly to the insurers, please remember that payments made on the Blue Cross Website suffer from the same disability. And while there’s a live chat on Healthcare.gov which at least connects you to a person who can explain the problem, Blue Cross has made sure to keep its product completely untouched by human hands. I finally got through by calling corporate headquarters and explaining first to the corporate operator and then to local customer service and then finally to national customer service (after local stayed on the line with me for ten minutes to assure that national actually picked up) that a bill dated 12/12 should have included an electronic payment made on 12/2, and that no, the bill and my payment hadn’t “crossed in the mail.” In the words of the great Eric Clapton, “How many times must I explain myself ‘fore I can talk to the boss?” though by “Forever Man” I doubt he meant “man with whom you have to stay on hold forever.”

In short (I know, other people’s customer service nightmares are a bore while one’s own is fascinating), everyone who complains about the f***-ups of Obamacare ought to take a second a remember the last time s/he had to deal with a private insurer. In fact, the worst thing about the Affordable Care Act is that it leaves the insurance companies in the picture, and us to their continued tender mercies.

Of interest to Chicagoans (possibly)

As some of you might know, I was one of a pair of “Dueling [theater] Critics” unceremoniously bounced from Chicago Public Media for being too expert.  (I am not making this up.)  However, you can’t keep a good battle down, and my colleague Jonathan Abarbanel and I have resumed our role as the Bickersons of Chicago theater on a podcast of our own design and creation.  You can hear us on soundcloud every Friday morning and/or subscribe to us on iTunes.

See you at the theater!

I now drop the mic…

Below is a section of the thank-you card I received from juniors at the Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy in Chicago. The card was a sweet surprise. I will treasure it.

Brooks is a selective enrollment public high school nestled on 40 acres near the Historic Pullman District on the far south side. It

IMG_2316made the news this spring when Chicago’s most famous selective high school—Payton–initially forfeited a baseball game. Apparently some Payton parents were nervous about driving their kids down to Brooks’ campus Mayor Emanuel made a point of visiting the rescheduled game, which I hope  shamed some people.

The forfeit was really stupid, since my most frightening experience at Brooks occurred when some angry geese hissed at me after I accidentally approached their young. Don’t laugh—these birds can really mess you up.*

I addressed an assembly of the junior class. We covered the whole gamut related to youth violence: gun safety legislation, drug legalization, efforts to help young people improve their self-regulation and social-cognitive skills. I then shared a long lunch with about twenty students. It was a great time with the students and staff. I hope to come back.

I was inspired by the visit, but a bit saddened, too–not by anything at Brooks, but by the contrast with other places. Continue Reading…

Rachel Shteir versus Chicago: Performance versus Reality

I was in Russia when a tourist from New York turned to me and said, “Whatever happened to Chicago?” To this mysterious question he added, “I kept thinking it was going to break through, but it never did.” Nonplussed, I tried to think of a Chicago breakthrough. Eventually I must have sputtered something about Nobel laureates because he interrupted me dismissively. “Eds and meds,” he said. “Every second-tier city has those.” That concluded conversation between us–-for the rest of the trip.

And that’s the problem with Rachel Shteir’s article on the front page of last week’s New York Times Book Review. Conversation ended the minute she turned a review of books about Chicago into a pan of the city itself. Oh, there were responses aplenty, but most were reflexively protective, the kind you’d expect from a mother charged with having an ugly baby. So we’ve had a week of “So’s your old man” and “I’m rubber, you’re glue” without anybody’s communicating much of anything worthwhile.

Which is a shame, because Shteir’s review was a gigantic missed opportunity to investigate the fact that “Chicago” is a performance. Chicagoans perform the city’s epic nature, its street smarts, its unshockability. Most of all we perform its blue-collar roots even–especially–when we have none of our own. How could a professor of theater miss the fact that she’s in the midst of a production as deft and complicated and self-referential as Brecht? Continue Reading…

How not to write about Chicago’s crime problem

If you have to write a story about Chicago’s crime problem, you couldn’t do much worse than Kevin Williamson’s “Gangsterville: How Chicago reclaimed the projects but lost the city,” on the web at the National Review.

To be sure, Williamson makes a few good points. He notes, for example, that the decline of disciplined hierarchical gangs may have brought unintended consequences. He reminds the youngsters of notorious Chicago gangsters Larry Hoover and Jeff Fort. In just about every other way, this piece illustrates much that is wrong in the way millions of Americans view the urban scene.

He notes–but variously seems to forget– that it’s not Dodge City here. Chicago homicide rates—though up roughly 20 percent between 2011 and 2012—remain a notch below levels of ten or fifteen years ago. Homicide rates are way below the levels of the early 1990s and the crack epidemic years. Non-homicide crime rates have also declined. Our homicide decline has been too slow when compared with LA or New York. Still, many cities—Baltimore, Detroit, Cleveland, Camden–would love to have Chicago’s problems or our crime rate.

Williamson’s article is filled with homespun wisdom such as the following:

The usual noises were made about gun control, and especially the flow of guns from nearby Indiana into Chicago, though nobody bothered to ask why Chicago is a war zone and Muncie isn’t.

I don’t know about Muncie, which is four hours away. People have bothered to ask about our almost-immediate neighbor: Gary, Indiana. An April 2012 Chicago magazine piece described swathes of Gary’s housing stock as “burned and cratered as if in a war zone.” Continue Reading…

Talking guns and youth violence at the Atlantic

Ta-Nehisi Coates and I recently had a nice dialogue at the Atlantic. We talked about youth violence in Chicago, and beyond:

I don’t know if I’ve told you how I come to this issue, but I should say for everyone reading this that I am from Baltimore — the West Side, as we used to call it. I came of age in the late 1980s and early 90s, a period in which violence spiked in our cities. I don’t know if Chicago today is as bad as it was in, say, 1988, but this was a period of deep fear for everyone in the black communities of Baltimore. And the fear was everywhere.

It changed how we addressed our parents. It changed how we addressed each other. It changed our music. The violence put rules in place that often look strange to the rest of the country. For instance, the mask of hyper-machismo and invulnerability — the ice-grill, as we used to say — looks strange, until you’ve lived in a place where that mask is the only power you have to effect a modicum of safety.

I’m in my late 40s. I was a typical suburban kid graduating high school outside New York. It wasn’t as tough for me as it was on the west side of Baltimore, but crime certainly touched my life. On one occasion, I was in Washington Heights on my way to an AP class at Columbia University. A group of middle-school or early-high-school kids jumped me in the subway station, and they attempted to wrest away my watch. My high school sweetheart had just given it to me; I didn’t want to give it up. So a kid grabbed me by the hair and smashed my head against the concrete floor until I finally relented. As you know, my cousin was beaten to death by two teenage house burglars a few years later.

So I remember very well both the fear and the anger that accompanies one’s sense of physical vulnerability. Of course this anger often comes with a race/ethnic/class tinge that poisons so much of what we are trying to do in revitalizing urban America…..

I’ll let you guess who-was-who there. More here at Ta-Nehisi’s place.

Where do Chicago crime guns come from?

The New York Times‘ Monica Davey has a nice story this morning with some pretty maps detailing where guns used in Chicago crimes actually come from. The story rests on an empirical analysis performed by my terrific University of Chicago Crime Lab colleague Seth Bour. Many of the guns seized by Chicago police come from just outside the city limits, purchased in gun stores located in collar communities. Definitely worth a look.

No, Chicago homicides aren’t soaring, but we can do better.

There’s much wonderful reporting in Monica Davey’s front-page New York Times’ piece on Chicago’s current homicide challenge. But I hate the headline: “In a Soaring Homicide Rate, a Divide in Chicago.” To be more precise, I hate the first half of the headline. Chicago’s homicide rate ticked up in 2012, but remains far below rates of any year 1985-2002. The second half of Davey’s headline is right on the money, though.

More here.

For those who want more, barring last-minute schedule changes I’ll be on Up with Chris Hayes tomorrow talking crime issues. Yeah, I am a little nervous.