Friday, November 06, 2009

Grocery Shopping In An Alternate Universe: A Parable

This post appeared first on Thinking The Lions. I know it doesn't quite fit here, but it's important enough that I'm putting it on all my blogs today.

I was one of the lucky ones, I suppose.

I was able to get hired by an employer who offered a great grocery plan. And not only that, but the plan covered my family, which meant that only a few months after getting hired, we'd be able to get to the grocery store almost any time we wanted and buy food.

I liked the plan. Even though I had to pay 15% of my income each month towards groceries (whether or not I bought any), my employer was paying 85% of the cost (whether or not I bought groceries), so I could accept that part of my pay was being taken towards necessities I might never use. It even kind of made sense to me that my employer covered 85% of the cost of the Grocery Plan for the higher-ups who made 2 or 3 or 4 times what I made. Sure, they could afford to pay more for their groceries -- and if they did so, it would reduce my own costs-- and, yeah, 15% of my just-about-minimum wage earnings really kind of hurt a lot more than if I was paying, say, 15% of $200,000 like the guys at the top, but it seemed fair, to me, that we all paid the same exact percentage. Besides, whenever it came up in my mind, I just reminded myself to look only at the percentages, not the actual dollars.

In just three short months, I was covered under the Grocery Plan and it was about time, too, as the kids and my wife were really hungry. We'd put off going to the grocery store until we were covered, but not by choice: Without a Grocery Plan, we couldn't find a grocery store that would let us in unless we paid in advance for everything we wanted.

"But I don't know what I want, yet," I told one lady on the phone. "I don't even know what you offer or what it costs. How can I pay for it in advance?"

She was apologetic and said that's just the way it works.

So anyway, when my Grocery Plan went into effect, I called up and got pre-approval to go to one of the three grocery stores that were kind of near us. The one I really wanted to go to, just down the street, wasn't in the plan, but I could deal with that. I don't mind driving a little, especially because it's important to control the costs of groceries by using only pre-approved stores.

My wife asked "What if we just need a gallon of milk in a hurry? Can't we just run to the Store nearby?" So I asked the insurance lady that, and she said that we could, in an emergency, but that they might not pay for the groceries if we did that and we should try to call them first. Anyway, my wife's just a worrywart. We can plan ahead and never need to run out and get milk at the last minute.

Once I had the pre-approval, I drove to the grocery store, but they told me I needed an appointment to shop. When I asked how long it would be until I could get an appointment, they said they could get me in during the afternoon on Tuesday, three weeks from now.

I wasn't starving, yet, but the kids were pretty hungry. The littlest one, Mr Bunches, hadn't eaten since I lost my last job and I was worried that maybe it was starting to affect him.

"Isn't there any way I could get some groceries today?" I asked the lady at the desk. She said that there was an Urgent Groceries across town, if I felt it was that important.

I pictured Mr Bunches and the way he'd stared longingly at the refrigerator, and decided this was pretty urgent. Not a Grocery Emergency or anything, but pretty Urgent. And besides, even if it wasn't terribly urgent, what other choice did I have? I might have been able to wait a day or two, but three weeks?

So I drove to the Urgent Groceries and went inside. The lady at the front desk asked to see my card and asked what I was there for.

"I need some groceries, today," I said. "I've got some little kids, and a wife, at home, and they haven't eaten in a long time." She looked skeptical, like I didn't belong there, and I wanted to say "Hey, it's your fault that I couldn't get into the regular grocery store," but I didn't, because I didn't want to get them mad at me.

She handed me some forms and said that there was a $100 copay, which really surprised me. "I already pay a premium, through my work," I said. "It's 15% of my income, the same as everyone else's in the business, even the higher-ups -- they make, like 3 times what I do but we all pay the same share, so that's fair, right?"

She said that the co-pay is in addition to the premium, and said I should look at my Grocery Card. I'd never looked at it before -- that whole stack of Grocery Policy Papers and things they'd given me was pretty confusing, and I hadn't read it anyway because it was the only policy my boss offered, so it didn't matter whether I liked it or not, I had to take it or leave it. I didn't really like that I'd pay more every time I went to the Store, but I figured if it became a problem I'd limit my trips, go only when I absolutely had to.

The card said that the copay was $50, and I showed it to her. "That's for regular shopping, not Urgent Groceries," she said. "Urgent Groceries are double."

"I have to pay more if it's more urgent?" I asked.

"Yes," she said, and she didn't sound sympathetic.

"But it's not even my fault I'm here. I tried to go to the regular Grocery Store and they didn't let me in."

"Sorry," she said, but she didn't sound sorry. I had to write out a check for this "copay" and hope that they wouldn't cash it before I got paid on Friday, but what could I do? I needed groceries, and I didn't want to go home and see Sweetie and Mr F and The Boy staring at me.

Then she gave me some forms and said to check in with the receptionist, which was weird because I thought that's what I'd done. But I began filling out the forms and telling them my grocery history, as best as I could. I'd never had Groceries before, so I wasn't really sure how to answer some of the questions.

I sat in the waiting room for about 50 minutes, but I didn't mind because I knew I probably shouldn't have been there. I mean, when I looked at the other Urgent Grocery shoppers waiting their turn, they all looked worse than me. One guy kept smacking his lips and saying "Hamburgers!" over and over, and his eyes looked glazed. There was a little girl there who looked really thin and pale, like she'd never eaten. I thought she should have gone to the Emergency Groceries, or maybe even a Fast Food Place. I didn't mind that she got to go shopping ahead of me.

There were a couple other people like me, though, who didn't seem to really be that needy. I bet they'd done what I did: Just realized that they kind of needed to get some Groceries, and couldn't wait 3 weeks.

While I was sitting there, I couldn't help but wonder why it was that the Regular Grocery Stores weren't open past 5 p.m., or before 9 a.m., or even on the weekends. It might make it easier if they were open longer, or had different shifts. I mean, for regular grocery shopping, I'd have to take time off of work just to go get some potato chips, and if I couldn't do that, I'd always be at the Urgent Grocery Store, since that was the only one open past 5 or on weekends.

Oh, well, I figured. They know what they're doing. It's not up to me to second guess how the grocery business is run.

When they finally called my name, I stopped reading the old Shoppers' Guide they had in the waiting room and got up with my list in hand. I was actually kind of excited: I'd waited so long for this and now I was finally going to get some Groceries!

I took the list Sweetie had made and moved into the store. The first thing I needed was the Bakery, to get some Bread. I didn't see a sign for that, and I asked the clerk up front.

"We don't have a Bakery," she said. "This is an Urgent Grocery, so you can't get everything you need here. If you really need something that's not here, we can refer you. The Emergency Grocery has everything, downtown."

I decided that I didn't need Bread so much, and moved into the Cereal aisle. The selection was pretty slim there, too -- just the bare necessities, but that's what you get, I figured, when you have to go to the Grocery Store after hours. I walked around that aisle for a while trying to figure out which one to get, but I'd never had any cereal before and couldn't tell whether any of them was better than the other, or which one I might need, let alone which one a 3-year-old or my wife might need.

There was a Cereal Assistant, though, and I asked her whether she would recommend one or the other Cereals in the aisle. "I can't really recommend anything," she said. "I'm here to take information from you and pass it on to the Cereal Specialist. Then he and I will talk it over and he'll tell you what you need."

So I answered her questions ("I like sweetened cereal for the boys," I said, and "Maybe something with raisins.") She put it all into her computer, and nodded, and then said she'd be back in a while or the Cereal Specialist would come in in a bit.

After about 10 minutes, the Cereal Specialist came in. He asked me the same questions the Cereal Assistant had, looked at my stomach and my cart (which was still empty) and said "You need corn flakes."

"How much are they?" I asked.

"I don't know," he said, "But I'm sure your insurance will cover it. You should talk to them about it." He handed me a box of corn flakes and then patted my shoulder and said to make a follow-up appointment about a week before the box was empty.

I put the cornflakes in the cart and walked past all the other cereals, wondering why I had corn flakes instead of one of those other ones. It kind of bugged me, to tell you the truth. I'm not the smartest guy about these things, I know, but I saw a Dateline report a couple months ago where they were talking about how corn flakes don't really do that much to curb hunger, and they're not all that nutritious or tasty. I didn't watch the whole thing ('cause... boring), but I got enough to know that maybe I'd never try corn flakes.

Still, he was the Cereal Specialist, and nobody's ever really sure about these things, right?

I did know I needed milk for the corn flakes, and I headed over to the Dairy Aisle. All the milk was behind a counter, where a lady stood in a white coat. I wondered if she was a doctor, and asked her.

"No, I'm the Milk-A-Cist," she said.

"Oh," I said. "I need some milk for these corn flakes. We're going to eat tonight!"

"Did you call your prescription in ahead of time?" she asked.

"Prescription?" I asked.

"I can't sell you most milks without a prescription from the Specialist," she said. "If you've called it in, it'll probably be ready. Otherwise, you might have to wait."

"I've been here a pretty long time already," I said, "And I didn't ask about a prescription in the Cereal Aisle. Isn't there anything you can sell me?"

"We've got some over-the-counter stuff that might work, almost as good," the Milk-A-Cist said.

"Let me have some of that," I said, and she pulled out a bottle of water.

Water with cereal? I wasn't sure about that, but, I'm not Grocery Expert. I didn't go to Grocery School for 8 years or anything, so how should I know what's best? Besides, what else could I do?

"Will that work with cereal?" I asked her.

"I'm not supposed to give advice like that," she said, "But the label says it should be okay. Do you have any allergies to water?"

But I didn't know. I'd never been to the Groceries before. Then I had another thought: "Is that okay for 3-year-olds?" I asked.

She shook her head. "No, you'll need Childrens' Water for them." So she got some of that, too, and then rang it up. I showed her my insurance card, but she shook her head.

"No," she said. "Prescription Milk would be covered, mostly, but for over-the-counter things, you've got to pay cash."

That didn't make any sense to me at all, but, again, who am I to say what makes sense in these things and what doesn't? All these complexities are probably just lost on me. They must be, since the other day a guy on the radio said that we have the Greatest Grocery System In The World. So the weird stuff must work, and I'm not questioning it.

I paid for the waters and then was going to head out, but I looked down and thought Cereal and water doesn't seem like much of a meal, so I decided to try and get something a little more hearty. I headed back to the Meat Department to look for some chicken or something.

But at the Meat Department, there was another clerk. She said "Do you have an appointment?"

"No," I said, "But I didn't think I needed one. This is the Urgent Groceries, right?"

She shook her head. "The Meat Department is a specialist. We can't see you unless you have a referral."

"What's that?" I asked. She sighed and said:

"You have to go back to your regular Grocery Person and get them to refer you to us. Then you call us and make an appointment, and we'll help you with your Meat needs."

"I don't have a regular Grocery Person," I said. "I've only just gotten on a Grocery Plan."

"You should call your plan administrator and ask them to assign you a regular Grocery Person," she said. She seemed pretty nice and added "I'd like to help you, but that's all I can do."

I was really kind of upset. I didn't take it out on her, or the Meat Department, though. It was probably a law, I figured -- probably some stupid government law that was keeping them from helping me right now. Those God damn regulations! It's always like that: every time the government does anything they screw it up. I said that to her:

"Stupid Congress, right?" I nodded. She shook her head, though, and said:

"No, sir, it's just the Policy requirements."

I didn't know what that meant, though. So I thanked her and then said:

"Do you know who my Plan Administrator is?"

She said it was probably in my Policy, whatever that is. There was a 1-800 number on the back of my card, though, so I used my cell phone to call it while I walked back towards the front of the store. I couldn't get a hold of anyone, though. They said to call back during "normal business hours." That made sense: I worked during the day, so they must, too. I'd try to call the next day, I figured, on my lunch break.

Luckily for me, I didn't have to check out at all -- my Grocery Plan was going to pay for EVERYTHING. Except the water, of course. I showed my cereal to the cashier as I went out and she motioned to me.

"We need your address," she said.

"Why?" I asked.

"To send your statement of benefits," she said.

Whatever that is. I gave it to her. She also made me make a follow-up appointment. "Will I get more groceries that day?" I asked. She shook her head and said "It's just to see how these groceries went." I wondered if I'd have to pay a co-pay for that, too, but I figured I could just cancel it. She said I couldn't just call in and talk to them, either, and I'm not going to miss a day of work if the Groceries are fine.

I headed on home, where we feasted on corn flakes and cereal. The Boy complained about the dinner, saying that his friend's dad, when he got hungry, had gotten to go to a fancy restaurant and have a three-course meal.

"Well, what Grocery Plan does he have?" I asked. The Boy didn't know what a Grocery Plan was, so I explained to him that everyone has to have a Grocery Plan, that there's companies out there that will "cover" your Groceries, so that when you get hungry, you go to the Store and they tell you what groceries to get, and then they pay for him.

"Why do they do that?" The Boy asked.

"Because it makes sense," I said. "Nobody knows in advance how much their groceries are going to be, and when they'll need them..." but he interrupted.

"But you know you will need them, right?"

"Maybe," I said. "Not everyone needs groceries."

He shook his head. I could see he didn't get it, and he said "Everyone will need groceries some time or other." I didn't know how else to explain it to him, so I said

"Well, if they need groceries, they get on a Grocery Plan through work and then they'll get them."

"Can't they just buy a Grocery Plan?" The Boy asked. Sweetie and I laughed at that.

"Sure," I said. " I suppose they could just call a Grocery Plan Company and sign up but that'd cost them a bundle. It's better to get a job and have their boss give it to them."

The Boy still looked a little confused and said "But doesn't everyone need to eat? Shouldn't everyone be entitled to at least get some groceries, somehow?"

You've got to expect that from kids: They think that everything's a right, that things like groceries are just guaranteed to be given to you and that somehow, society can guarantee that. I tried to set him straight:

"Everyone can get groceries, if they want, Boy," I said. "But you can't just go around handing them out. We're not Russia, you know. That kind of thing doesn't work. Besides, imagine if the government were to take over the grocery industry!" Sweetie laughed at that, too.

"The government does pretty good with some things," The Boy said. He's probably got teachers that fill his head with that crap.

"Like what?" I challenged him.

"They deliver the mail all over the country, pretty quick, and it's cheap, too. You can mail a letter for less than fifty cents and it'll go from Maine to Alaska in a day or two."

I didn't even know where to begin with that one. "The Post Office?" I said. "That's your idea of government efficiency? Have you ever seen the lines at the Post Office? You wait forever just to get stamps, and the government has to pay the Post Office just to keep it in business." He was being ridiculous. I mean, yeah, I had to wait to get into the Urgent Groceries, but that was different because it wasn't the regular grocery store, which I could have gone right into if I'd had an appointment, plus, once I was in the Urgent Groceries, I'd hardly waited at all.

"Why do they do that?" The Boy asked. "Why do they pay to keep the Post Office running?"

I'd never thought of that, but I gave him an answer: "I guess," I said, "It's because it's important to the government, and people, that everyone gets to mail a letter or send a package and keep in communication with people."

"Aren't Groceries as important as mail?" The Boy asked.

"No," I said, "It's not that. Everyone agrees Groceries are important, but if the Government got into the Grocery business, it would put the private Grocery Companies out of business, and plus, nobody would want to go into the Grocery Store end of it." Something about that bugged me -- I kept thinking of Federal Express and UPS and the Post Office, for some reason, but I shrugged it aside. "We've got the Best Grocery System In the World, and you don't want to mess with that, right?" I figured if the guy on the radio swayed me, it'd sway The Boy.

That was the end of that, more or less. I was going to, the next day, call ahead and make a Grocery Appointment so I could go to the regular store in three weeks, since the follow-up appointment wasn't for new Groceries, but I was pretty busy and, anyway, I had groceries now, so I didn't need an appointment for three weeks away. I didn't know how long the corn flakes would last, but I guessed that if I couldn't get in when they ran out, I'd just go to the Urgent Groceries again.

The only real shocker was that about 3 months later, we got this thing in the mail. We got, like, four things, actually, all these papers that said This Is Not A Bill and had all kinds of figures and numbers on them. I couldn't figure them out -- I've been to college, but these were confusing -- but I didn't need to figure them out. Since they said This Is Not A Bill, I didn't need to do anything so I just threw them away.

The fourth one, though, was a bill, and it was for $4,000. Four thousand bucks! And they said it had to be paid within 30 days or they might send me to a collection agency.

I didn't have four grand sitting around, and anyway, I had a Grocery Plan, so this had to be a mistake. I finally got a chance to call the number on the bill and talk to the lady -- I had to go outside at work to do it because I'm not supposed to make personal phone calls -- and I said that it had to be a mistake because I had a Plan and because it was so expensive.

"I didn't even know how much those corn flakes cost!" I said, and she said that she was sorry about that but there was nothing she could do.

"But the Cereal Specialist said I needed those corn flakes and didn't give me a choice," I said. She didn't have any answer for that one, so I said "Well, anyway, it must be a mistake because I've got a Plan, so I don't have to pay for corn flakes."

"It's not a mistake, sir," she said. "You're not covered for those benefits you received," and when I asked what that meant, she said that because I was a new enrollee, I wasn't covered for Hunger, as that was something she said was a "pre-existing condition."

"You mean," I said, "If I was hungry when I went shopping, you wouldn't pay for it, but if I wasn't hungry, then you would?"

"Exactly," she said. She explained that helped keep their costs down so that I could afford the Grocery Plan.

I tried to make a payment plan, but she said they didn't do that, and that I'd have to pay in full or they might garnish my wages. I talked to a guy I know about this, and he said that maybe a lawyer could help me, but all the lawyers I talked to just said that I could file bankruptcy, and I don't want to do that if I don't have to. I've been just sending them $20 here and there, whenever we have a little extra money, and hoping that they don't sue me or something. I can't keep that up for long, though, since my boss said that they're going to have to start charging the employees more for Grocery Plans to make ends meet at the business. So they're going to raise the contribution to 25%, which seems fair, I guess because with the recession and all, everyone's cutting back and I don't want to get laid off, so paying more seems like a good idea if it keeps me in my job. We couldn't ask many questions, since he told us about it on a conference call; he's on vacation right now, someplace warm like Guatamala or something, but he said even he's going to pay 25% of his wages, so it's not like I'm the only one sacrificing.


You wouldn't put up with that kind of thing for groceries... so why put up with it for health care?

Tomorrow, or soon, the House of Representatives is going to vote on the health care reform bill. This bill is not everything that's needed -- but it's a good step along the way.

Health care is a basic right that America should guarantee to everyone, and you can help. Contact your representative and tell him or her that you want Universal Health Care. See the links below.

Then contact the White House, and remind President Obama that he said this:

'We can have universal health care by the end of the next president's first term, by the end of my first term,'' Obama said, bringing 600 union workers to their feet during a question-and-answer session with members of AFL-CIO affiliated unions...

And tell him to quit mucking around and get Health Care Reform passed!

To contact your legislator, click this link and follow the simple directions

To contact the White House, click this link and fill in the form.

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