An open letter to UnitedHealth Group CEO Stephen Hemsley about my family’s canceled COBRA insurance

Posted on April 10, 2013

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4/12/13 Update: Great news! We’ve been reinstated by United Healthcare. Thank you to all who shared our story and to those who made the decision to reverse this. My wife and I appreciate all the support!

Mr. Stephen Hemsley:

I made an honest mistake, wasn’t given a fair opportunity to correct it and now my family’s COBRA coverage has been canceled by your company.

On March 16, I paid my family’s monthly health insurance bill to United Healthcare (UHC) the same way I have for almost a year now, through the company’s website as a direct withdraw from our checking account. But I was using a new bank account that we set up after a recent move. Unfortunately, I entered the account number incorrectly. It turns out I left off three digits that are part of the account number but listed separately on the checks.

I had no idea I’d made a mistake at the time. In fact, I was led to believe UHC had received my money. On March 20, I got an email from your company stating “Your payment has been received.” I continued on with my day-to-day life as a husband and father of three, assuming we still had health care coverage. I’d submitted the payment as usual and gotten the confirmation email. Things seemed good.

But on April 8, I went online to pay my family’s April bill and was unable to access the payment screen on your website. Confused, I called UHC and was told that my coverage had been terminated for lack of payment.

Working with a customer service representative, we figured out my error from March and I was told I’d need to send a request via email to have my account reinstated. And so on April 8, right after hanging up the phone, I did just that, apologizing in an email, explaining what had happened and asking for the opportunity to pay for March.

The customer service rep also explained on the phone that day that UHC had sent me a letter stating that my payment had not gone through. The letter explained that I had until March 31 to correct this.

Unfortunately, that letter, which I now have, was postmarked Thursday, March 27, eleven days after I made my error, and it went to my old address. I’m not sure that mail would have arrived before Sunday, March 31 even if it had come straight to me at my new address. I don’t know about you, but mailing me a letter by standard mail on a Thursday, expecting it to arrive by Saturday and saying that it needs to be paid by Sunday, or I lose my family’s health insurance coverage, strikes me as unacceptable.

On April 9, I received a reply from UHC to my request for reinstatement, saying that it had been denied. I’ve followed up by phone and email, trying to get someone at UHC to better explain their decision and reverse it. I’ve been told, “United Healthcare Benefit Services follows the guidelines for payments and grace periods defined by the Department of Labor. Your account has been reviewed and the termination remains as payment was not received within the guidelines provided.” But, as I understand the federal guidelines for COBRA, your company could accept my payment and keep me as a customer if they’d like.

I understand that because of my error in typing a new account number you did not get your payment on time. But with something as serious as a family’s health insurance coverage on the line, why did UHC wait until 11 days after an error to snail mail a customer saying that they only have a short time to resubmit the payment? What was happening with my account at UHC between March 16 and 27? And why just send a letter? Why not send also me an email, as that’s how I normally get confirmation about my payments to UHC?

Additionally, I don’t understand why UHC sends out emails stating “Your payment has been received,” when that’s simply not true. And why, after I’ve been a customer for two years, one through COBRA and another year before that as the employee of a company, would UHC want to just terminate our account after I’ve explained my mistake?

No one in our house has made a trip to the doctor or required any medical attention in several months. But in March and early April, we’ve been four times, and one of those visits was for blood work, which likely comes at a steep price. Now that UHC has dropped us as a customer, I fully expect we’ll be receiving the bills for those four visits instead of UHC. Had I not received email confirmation from you of my payment for March, I highly doubt we would have made all those visits without first making a phone call to UHC to confirm coverage.

Perhaps you’ve made some sort of business decision to let us go. But it strikes me as an awful people decision. And it’s really not a great business decision either when you consider the big picture and that I might have chosen to remain a customer down the road once I’m no longer eligible for COBRA, or that I might tell others about my experience.

Imagine the fan I’d have become of your company had you allowed me to correct my mistake. Think about how impressed I’d have been if UHC had done more than simply put a March 27 warning letter in the U.S. Mail 11 days after an error, telling me to fix it by March 31. One of your own customer service reps even told me today that they thought I should be reinstated given that I’d attempted to pay you.

It’s a cliche, but I’m feeling like just a number right now and like I didn’t stand a chance. Upon reading this, I hope UHC will reconsider their decision, reinstate my family’s account and allow me to pay you for March and April, as I’ve been trying to do.

Sincerely,
Mike Holden

A friend has started a petition about this on change.org if you’d like to check that out as well and sign it. Thanks for all the support, everyone!

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