This story neither supports nor vilifies the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as “Obamacare.” Though, as a backdrop for a crazy story, you couldn’t ask for anything better. I mean, it’s a law that was ostensibly passed to give millions of Americans access to affordable healthcare, something every other country on the planet already has. Unfortunately, what Americans actually got was another massive bureaucracy with a comically messy rollout, a bungling mishigas of code and, thus far, a lot of empty promises. It’s an awesome allegory, a brilliant metaphor, a wonderfully parallel story arc, or whatever the writers are calling such things these days.
Another important aspect of this story is the main character, Dave. Dave is an obsessive, compulsive guy. We’re not talking about someone who just checks the stove a few times before he can leave the house. But we’re also not talking about someone who can’t stop checking the oven and can never leave the house. He’s somewhere in the middle of the obsessive, compulsive spectrum. His worst problem is he tends to get bogged down in minutia. Anything from buying vegetables to sorting the post-it notes on his desk will occupy him for much longer than it should. So what happens when an obsessive, compulsive guy interacts with a byzantine government program? A really good story is what happens, especially if that guy is Dave.
Just like Obama said wouldn’t happen, Dave lost his health coverage because his plan didn’t cover everything in the new mandate. One of the myriad of the act’s failings is that it doesn’t recognize the fact that while one of Dave’s plans didn’t cover the new rules, both of the plans he had did. They were just with two different companies. Trust me when I say that if Dave used two different plans in conjunction with each other to provide complete health insurance for himself, it was for a very good, thoroughly researched reason. As a matter of fact, it probably took him a very long time to figure it all out and decide on his approach. (Remember what I said about minutia and bogs.)
So, October 1st rolls around, and Dave gets on the website to register for Obamacare. Well, since he’s a New Yorker, he was transferred to the New York Exchange, but still, it’s more or less Obamacare. Anyway, everything was going fine (for several hours) until the system crashed. Dave handled it rather well (considering his nature) and just figured he’d try again in a few weeks.
At the beginning of November, he tried to log on to the system, but this time it didn’t even accept his password. No matter what he tried, it didn’t work, so he had to resort to calling customer service. Two and half hours and a lot of tedious aggravation later, he was finally enrolled. The customer service rep said the usual things at the end of the call. She asked Dave if he needed anything else and were all his questions answered. Dave said, “Well, I am slightly suicidal, but since this new coverage I was forced to get has psychological counseling as a benefit, I’ll just wait and schedule and appointment with a doctor.” (Oh, did I forget to mention that he is rather sarcastic?) The girl didn’t laugh. Dave sort of just shrugged, said good-bye and hung up.
Fine, so now Dave was enrolled in the program and he can now focus on the important things, like the pile of lists on his desk and cleaning his glasses. Not 20 minutes after he hung up, and because he wasn’t wearing his glasses, he was startled when all he could see was a sea of blue coming towards him as he sat in his chair. Five NYPD officers had entered his apartment and were hovering over him. There had been no knock and no announcement from his doorman that someone was on their way up. All security systems had failed and Dave was surrounded by NYPD’s finest.
Dave being Dave didn’t react.
“Sir, are you OK?”
“Hey guys. What’s up?” He thought they were looking for a donation to the upcoming policeman’s ball.
“Sir, we got a call that somebody at this address was going to hurt themselves.”
“Oh, I just signed up for this Obamacare thing and, …do you guys have to do that? Oh, no, of course you don’t, you have a health plan. Anyway, I was signing up for Obamacare and I said what I said because it was such a lengthy, ridiculous process. It was a facetious comment. But I have to say, you being here is an excellent waste of your time and of my and your tax dollars.”
“So you didn’t mean it sir?”
“No. What I want you to do is leave so I can call them back and explain to them how stupid they are.”
“OK sir, but if you say anything like that again, we’ll have to come back here and take you to a hospital. Do you understand?”
Dave said nothing. After they left, he did of course call the Obamacare people back, got a supervisor on the line and there was no record of who had flagged him as suicidal. There was no record of who had called 911. At that point, Dave had a moment of panic when he thought that if there was no record of any that, maybe he’s wasn’t even enrolled in the system after all he’d been through. The supervisor assured him that yes, he was in the system.
For Dave, the most upsetting aspect of the situation was that his glasses hadn’t been fully cleaned when the police had arrived. For the rest of us, we’re left with the feeling that there’s something seriously wrong with the way humans are interacting with each other.
What we have here is not just a failure to communicate. Here’s Dave, the droll New Yorker, calling the government and jokingly telling them he’s going to kill himself. Even if the poor girl understood the concept of sarcasm — something we cannot know for sure one way or the other — she was bureaucratically required to do what she did. She had to follow the rules. The phone call was recorded. What if he had killed himself and she hadn’t reported it? Also, even if she had suspected he was joking and asked him if he was joking, she is not medically qualified to judge if he’s really joking. Bureaucracies have perfectly trained people in the job they were perfectly trained to do. She was not trained as a medical professional. She was trained as a customer service representative, and she was trained to perform a specific task and that task did not cover ascertaining whether Dave was being sarcastic or serious.
It’s not just the lack of a sense of humor, or an inability to sense sarcasm. We now live in an overly cautious society–where anything can lead to a law suit and/or inadvertent death–and bureaucratic organization runs the whole show. A bureaucracy is safe and controlled. It seemingly manages any and all danger with its rigor and processes, but it leaves no room for whimsy and fun. It sucks the enchantment out of life, everything that makes us human is lacking in a bureaucracy. That is why the poor girl called the NYPD about Dave. It’s not her fault. It’s not even the bureaucracy’s fault. It’s just the irrationality of extreme rationality.
Then again, he did call up the government and say he was going to kill himself.