Valentine’s Day 2019 was a stressful one for Isaiah Breen.
This is not a love story.
Breen, a former press secretary for then-U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, spent a large part of his February 14th on the phone with his insurance company, HealthPartners, in an attempt to save his plan from being canceled after a payment error. Breen, the communications director for Jewish Community Action, battled thick levels of bureaucracy, exposing the troublesome state of private insurance.
The 70-year-old insurance provider covers 1.8 million Americans across six states. Breen buys his own insurance, but HealthPartners insures many of its customers through employers. The company has received awards for its service, including one last year for being one of the highest-rated private companies in the nation, according to the National Committee for Quality Assurance.
HealthPartners' professional reputation clashes with Breen's story of being insured by the Bloomington-based company -- and then, suddenly, not insured. He overpaid his December premium, which caused the extra amount to roll over to his January bill. Confused by the credit displayed on the online payment portal, he then accidentally underpaid by $79.
HealthPartners wasn’t sympathetic about this debt. When Breen went to pay his February bill, he saw a note alerting him his plan had been canceled on February 12 as a result of missed payment. This surprised (and angered) Breen, who says he's been insured through HealthPartners for some time, and has never had a late or missed payment before.
He says he got no notice his payment was late, or that his insurance coverage was in jeopardy. When, on Thursday, Breen called HealthPartners in an attempt to clarify, he says he they were unapologetic. Representatives told him it wasn’t their responsibility to warn him of a pending cancellation, even adding that they weren’t “legally required” to help.
Because he didn’t pay his January premium in full, Breen learned, his plan was entirely canceled. Additionally, it was “retroactively canceled,” meaning HealthPartners was dropping his coverage back in January, when that bill was due.
In the meantime, Breen had seen a psychiatrist, a general practitioner, and a physical therapist. Under his old plan, that would've totaled $90 in copays. Since HealthPartners had determined he technically wasn’t insured during that time, Breen's out-of-pocket bill would've come to a cool $1,400.
“A part of me thinks that HealthPartners wasn’t and isn’t really invested [in keeping their customers], because most of the time it is actually less expensive for them to allow someone to drop off,” he said.
What occurred next recalled a frustrated customer trying to change a cable TV plan. Breen says he was bounced around a phone tree, from representative to representative, until eventually reaching a "senior director," who, he says, was just as unhelpful as everyone else. Breen was furious to see something so vital as health insurance treated like a trivial entity.
The icing on the cake is that in Minnesota, if a consumer is dropped from your plan due to a "missed payment," they're ineligible for a special enrollment period in another insurance pool. That means if open enrollment's over (it concludes at year-end), they wouldn’t be able to buy another plan.
“I explained this to them on the phone, and their answer was essentially, ‘tough shit. Not our fault,’” he said.
Breen's situation was frustrating, but, as he observed, would be even worse for someone with a serious medical condition, for whom losing insurance could easily become a life-or-death situation.
Breen wrote a formal letter to HealthPartners’ communication team, and contacted his doctors for assistance. One profusely apologized for what had happened, and went so far as saying they were “ashamed to share the same brand name" as HealthPartners, according to emails Breen shared with City Pages.
In the meantime, Breen tweeted.
to everyone commenting on this:https://t.co/6zqYlWb0mn— isaiah breen (friends call me isi) (@isaiah_kb) February 15, 2019
A Twitter thread documenting his ordeal rapidly gained attention. What HealthPartners didn’t know when canceling his plan was Breen's work history with both Ellison and JCA. Connections gained through those jobs mean he knew influential friends in the media, people willing to ask questions -- or raise hell -- for him. More than one contacted HealthPartners about Breen's misfortune. (Note: this is not the first time tweets have resulted in news coverage.)
Breen says HealthPartners contacted him within an hour of those reporters contacting his (former) insurer. A voicemail on behalf of the company, one Breen says came from the same senior director, who says they'd decided to reinstate him “after further review.” He's cynical about that explanation.
“The thing that I was told was impossible was resolved fairly quickly, and it took not even five minutes after I received that voicemail to go online and see that my coverage was back,” Breen said. “So clearly, the process was not particularly difficult for them.”
Asked about what happened to Breen, Becca Johnson, a spokesperon for HealthPartners, issued the following statement:
“While we can’t comment on specific details, we’re pleased this has been resolved. At HealthPartners we work hard to help members understand their coverage and payment. We’re always looking for opportunities to make this process more simple and understandable.”
Breen says “almost everyone” he knows insured through HealthPartners has had some sort of issue similar to his -- even his own "bubbe" (Yiddish for grandmother) almost got kicked off of her own plan due to an auto payment error, according to Breen.
He knows he’s privileged in this scenario, and lucky he was able to spend almost the entire working day trying to resolve this problem. Plus most Americans, especially those working minimum wage jobs, don't have his connections to local media; Breen's social network was capable of amplifying his messages.
“Every week we see a story like this, where public pressure gets an insurance company to do something...fair and right,” Breen said. “And for every one of those stories, there’s six or seven thousand people who just get screwed.”
He thinks you shouldn’t have to be friends with local reporters just to get treated like a human being. He succeeded in his fight, but says this one, small victory is representative of a larger failure of how America handles healthcare and insurance.
“When we have our care -- our safety, our health -- treated as a 'product,' this is the result,” Breen said.