Culture

You'll Be Shocked at How Hard It Is to Get Checked for Coronavirus

Kirkland Fire and Rescue ambulance workers walk back to a vehicle after a patient was loaded into an ambulance, Tuesday, March 10, 2020, at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., near Seattle. The nursing home is at the center of the outbreak of the new coronavirus in Washington state. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Gather round for storytime, dear readers, as I detail the unbelievable obstacles I had to overcome this week just to get my daughter’s nagging cough checked out by a medical professional. In the age of coronavirus, the amount of incompetence and needless bureaucracy in our medical system shows just how unprepared we are to respond to a crisis.

My daughter is in 4th grade and has had a nagging cough and congestion going on for a little over a week. On Tuesday, out of an abundance of caution, a teacher sent her home from school. Being the proactive type, before I even picked her up I called the express care clinic at the pharmacy around the corner from my house, hoping to set up a quick appointment. Can’t be too careful, I thought, and I’m sure my daughter’s primary care physician wouldn’t mind being spared the burden of office visits for a minor cough. Living in the Pacific Northwest, the original outbreak of coronavirus in Washington was a little too close for comfort, and it’s best to eliminate the worst possibility. Rule it out, get some cough medicine, and move on with my day.

Except, when I called the express care clinic, they told me not to bring her in. The lady who answered the toll-free number for the chain of clinics told me that they were trying to minimize exposure by limiting the number of in-person exams. Instead, she told me to sign up for a virtual visit via a secure online conferencing connection with a provider. It seemed odd, but I figured it was a reasonable precaution to prevent the spread of COVID-19, so I agreed to try to sign up.

This is the part where things began to get frustrating.

This express care clinic belongs to the same large healthcare network as my daughter’s primary care physician, so I went in thinking there wouldn’t be any problems signing up. After a lengthy onboarding process, however, I got a call from them telling me that they don’t accept my insurance. After a brief expression of incredulity on my part, the nice woman told me I should try to sign up for a virtual office visit through my insurer.

Things got exponentially more frustrating from there.

I freely admit that I don’t have the greatest level of patience when it comes to unnecessary bureaucracy and uncaring, monolithic customer service, and I still haven’t recovered from daylight saving time, but I decided to suck it up and do my part for king and country. After all, I’m helping to stop the spread of coronavirus.

After an onboarding process of about an hour through the insurer’s website, I entered what they call the virtual waiting room. The page said my wait would be less than 30 minutes.

An hour and a half later, a doctor came on my computer screen and told me she couldn’t talk to me. My wife is the policyholder, but I’m the one who set up the entire online account, and I’m on the policy. No matter, said this unpleasant doctor, she needed to talk to the insured. After another expression of incredulity, I agreed to call my wife on speakerphone, as the doctor requested, to have her give verbal authorization to talk to me over the secure webinar.

This was getting rather complex, I thought to myself.

Then the doctor said, no, I’m sorry, this isn’t going well and I’m going to disconnect this virtual visit. My wife happened to answer the phone as this exchange was going down, so she heard all this over speakerphone. I asked the doctor why she would disconnect the secure web connection when I had my wife on the phone as requested, and the connection blinked out. Gone. No more virtual visit.

After a few more forceful expressions of incredulity, my wife agreed to call the insurance company to give them permission to talk to me. I got a call from the insurance company after that to discuss the matter, and they told me to get back in the queue for the virtual visit, and they’re sorry for the runaround.

Another hour and a half passed with no connection to a medical professional. At that point, it had been five hours since I picked my daughter up from school, and hadn’t yet had a positive interaction with a medical professional.

Keep in mind, I was supposed to be working.

Clearly going nowhere fast, I decided to change tactics. I disconnected the virtual visit portal and called my daughter’s primary care physician. The lady who answered the phone expressed shock and disbelief that the express care clinic told me not to bring her in. We commiserated for a moment, and then she found a way to squeeze my daughter in for a visit within half an hour.

While I was on my way to the doctor’s office, the insurance company called back. The guy on the phone told me that he noticed that I’m still in the queue for a virtual visit, and I’ve been there for quite some time, and did I still need to talk to a provider? This is where I held the phone at arm’s length and stared at it to make sure I heard it right. I told the guy why I decided to give up on their service, and that the doctor with whom I briefly spoke should not be around people, and should be reassigned to a lab in some basement.

When I arrived at the doctor’s office, while the physician’s assistant was taking my daughter’s vitals, I recounted my odyssey. She said that the clinic has been unusually quiet, and they have had plenty of openings. In fact, the schedule was not as busy as normal due to so many cancelations by patients. In the exam room, we discussed symptoms with the doctor, quickly determined that it wasn’t coronavirus, and discussed over-the-counter options to relieve the cough. She prescribed an albuterol inhaler to help break up the chest congestion, and we were out the door.

What lessons did I learn from this? Express care clinics are about useless. Call your PCP first, not last. Customer service for insurance companies and health networks have descended into madness with their red tape. Most importantly, the advice you get strongly depends on who you speak with. Different health care providers say significantly different things about coronavirus. Some doctors skipped bedside manner classes in medical school.

I’m still not sure if I’ve gotten straight answers to my questions, but at least my daughter has some cough drops for her return to school today.