What's wrong with health insurance companies, Part 1

[UPDATE 6-26-09: BaltoNorth gets results! Carefirst came out with a new card in 2009. Just what I ask for below. Thanks for listening Chet.]

The card that I got from my health insurance company looks like this:

Pretend you're using this card for the first time. Quick, what's your "Membership Number"? What's your "Group Number"? Are you confused? I sure was the first time I used the card.

Why can't Carefirst Blue Cross/Blue Shield* tell us what the numbers mean right on the card? There is an explanation in the Member Handbook, but who brings the handbook with them to the doctor's office?

A message for everyone at Carefirst: Every time I take out my member card I grumble silently to myself. Every time. Every time I look at the card I think "why can''t they live up to their name and care about me by making a few simple changes to their member card? Why can't they design a card that makes things a tiny bit simpler for me? It would be soooo easy."

Chet Burrell, are you listening?

*For all of my gripes about Carefirst (I have plenty more) my sense is that they are not much better or worse than most other health insurance companies.


Books I'd like to read: an Edmund Burke bio by Conor Cruise O'Brien

The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography of Edmunde Burke.

via Peggy Noonan, who says it is "great".

Another of her recommendations:
A true delight was “The Blair Years,” Alastair Campbell’s memoir of his service with Tony Blair. No modern American political operative would write, or could write, a book as truthful, half crazy and irreverent as this one. It is a small classic, as is its more magisterial counterpart, “Counselor” by Ted Sorensen


How to use Google to improve your English

Jim Stroud lists five ways at englishcafe.com. I've been using Google as a spelling aid for a long time -- the correct spelling of a word generally gets the most hits.

via Joanne Jacobs


Video data visualization: Flow of immigrants into the US (1820-2007)

Edward Tufte would be proud.

I wish Ian S. had given the source of the data so we'd know how complete and reliable it is.

We need a Department of Food, not a Department of Agriculture

Words matter. Nick Kristof's latest column has a great headline: Obama's 'Secretary of Food'?

Kristof lays out part of the problem:
“We’re subsidizing the least healthy calories in the supermarket — high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated soy oil, and we’re doing very little for farmers trying to grow real food,” notes Michael Pollan, author of such books as The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food.
The column points to the farm lobby as one cause of the problem:
The Agriculture Department — and the agriculture committees in Congress — have traditionally been handed over to industrial farming interests by Democrats and Republicans alike.
Kristof points to two things Obama can do to begin to fix the problems: (1) hire a reformer as the new Secretary of Agriculture, and (2) change the name to Secretary of Food.

But he misses a big part of the solution -- the column only hints at it:
100 years ago when 35 percent of Americans engaged in farming. But today, fewer than 2 percent are farmers. In contrast, 100 percent of Americans eat.
What Kristof leaves out is this: in recent years we voters in urban-industrial states have shown little interest in "agriculture" policy. After all, what do we know about farming? As a result, our representatives have ceded authority on food legislation to politicians from the rural breadbasket states.

President-elect Obama can be only part of the solution. He will need a lot of help.

Voters in Maryland and other urban-industrial states -- all of us eat -- need to push food issues higher on our priority lists. If we let Kansas, Nebraska and California dominate the discussion, we'll only get more of the same, regardless of what Obama does.

So if you eat food, take a closer look at that hunk of sausage called the Farm Bill. It's not very appetizing.

If you eat food, call or write your congressmen today. Tell them that food policy is too important to be left to the farm states and the agriculture lobby. We need a Secretary of Food, ASAP.


"Forget the jets" -- Big 3 car CEOs still don't get it

Herb Stetzenmeyer wonders why the three didn't carpool:

They all left from the same town in Michigan with precisely the same room in Washington as their common destination. They all drove similar hybrid cars down the same road at precisely the same hour.

His conclusion:
They didn't get it 15 years ago; they didn't get it five years ago; they still don't get it today.

More adulation heaped on Nancy Grasmick

Nobody is as good as the press she gets.

She may have done some excellent work and she may be immune to flattery. But one wonders whether the relentless praise has gone to her head.

Her longevity, combined with media love that she attracts, brings to mind Alan Greenspan.

Tom Glavine -- change-up that breaks like a screwball

When thrown by a lefty, it breaks like away from a right-handed batter. As described here.

It's one of the interesting bits from John Feinstein's book about Glavine and Mike Mussina. The book is good, but I wish there was more about baseball and less about strikes and contract negotiations.

Some other interesting bits:
  • Mike Mussina would hold runners on first base by leaning over before the set and getting a glimpse of the runner between his legs.
  • Glavine got a pain in his arm in the first weeks of his minor league stint, and Atlanta coach Johnny Sain cured it with five straight days of long toss (instead of rest or a visit to the doctor). Sain's thinking was that Glavine's arm just needed some stretching out to help make the adjustment from pitching infrequently in high school to the more-demanding professional routine.


Malcolm Gladwell: Fix "quarterback problem" of public schools with LOWER standards

From the New Yorker:
There are certain jobs [like professional quarterback and teacher] where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they’ll do once they’re hired.
Gladwell thinks pushing for "higher standards" is useless because the standards fail to predict teaching ability:
Test scores, graduate degrees, and certifications—as much as they appear related to teaching prowess—turn out to be about as useful in predicting success as having a quarterback throw footballs into a bunch of garbage cans. . . . we shouldn’t be raising standards. We should be lowering them . . . Teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree—and teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before.
Read the whole thing.

UPDATE: It's interesting to compare this advice with some McKinsey findings from a year ago (The Economist, 10/18/07). McKinsey says there are key three elements of good schools: "[1] get the best teachers; [2] get the best out of teachers; and [3] step in [quickly and aggressively] when pupils start to lag behind."

Here's the part about getting the best teachers:

McKinsey argues that the best performing education systems [outside the U.S.] nevertheless manage to attract the best. . . . [Some] do this in a surprising way. You might think that schools should offer as much money as possible, seek to attract a large pool of applicants into teacher training and then pick the best. Not so, says McKinsey. . . . In practice, the top performers pay no more than average salaries.

Nor do they try to encourage a big pool of trainees and select the most successful. Almost the opposite. Singapore screens candidates with a fine mesh before teacher training and accepts only the number for which there are places. Once in, candidates are employed by the education ministry and more or less guaranteed a job. Finland also limits the supply of teacher-training places to demand. In both countries, teaching is a high-status profession (because it is fiercely competitive) and there are generous funds for each trainee teacher (because there are few of them).

So, it seems there are at least two different ways to recruit consistently good teachers: the Gladwell way or the McKinsey way. At present, I don't think Baltimore County is doing either.


Krista Tippett starts a new series on "The Ethics of Aid"

On her show this morning, Speaking of Faith, she interviewed Binyavanga Wainaina. I'm no expert on foreign aid and economic development, but he made more sense on the subject than anyone else I've ever heard.

Krista is a gem, and this looks to be an excellent series.

There's also an unedited version of the interview here.


The auto bailout: an open letter to my congressman & U.S. senators

To: Representative Ruppersberger, Senator Cardin & Senator Mikulski
Re: Congressional hearings on the auto industry bailout

Dear Dutch, Ben and Barbara,

Please vote against any auto company bailout.

The recent congressional testimony of the GM, Ford and Chrysler CEOs and the UAW president have been unimpressive and uninformative. It's been over 30 years since their wake-up call in the 1970s. They've had plenty of time and been given too many chances -- and they have always fallen short .

I've owned two GM cars in the past 15 years and most recently a Ford. With the Ford, I've dealt with too many major repairs, innumerable fit-and-finish problems, and six or eight recalls. My mechanic tells me (over and over), "Never buy a Ford again."

Management at GM, Ford and Chrysler will not make the necessary changes unless they are forced by bankruptcy. This is clear from the CEOs' choice of transport on their visit to DC two or three weeks ago. The US Congress is the last group of people who should be telling car manufacturers which technologies to choose, how many brands they should have, and so on. Such micro-management of an industry by Congress is a disastrous recipe for market dislocations, waste and environmental problems.

Nor will the United Auto Workers make necessary changes without bankruptcy. This is clear from a recent tidbit form Mickey Kaus: despite President Gettelfinger's vague claims of union concessions, the UAW "did not discuss wage and benefit concessions for active employees".

I trust the bankruptcy process to fix the auto industry most quickly and with the least amount of pain. I do not trust current management or union leadership to make changes other than slow and painful ones. If GM is allowed to go bankrupt, the Warren Buffetts of the world will step up, provide funds, and push for quick sensible changes.

Banks get failing grade on student checking accounts

If you're a new college student -- or the parent of one -- you shouldn't trust the local branch of your bank to point you to the most suitable checking products.

A friend recently related the story of a student who set up a checking account at a Baltimore area branch of Bank of America. The bank rep never mentioned the most appropriate option for a college freshman -- a no-frills ATM card -- and steered the student toward a Visa Check Card.

Unlike a basic ATM card, a check card can be used for point-of-sale (POS) purchases as well as ATM withdrawals. And, unlike the basic ATM card, a check card allows the student to make ATM withdrawals even when there is no money in the account. And each time it happens – ka-ching! – the Bank of America collects $25 to $35 in overdraft penalties.

As for my friend's story, here's the unfortunate result: over Thanksgiving, the student made a $60 ATM withdrawal and six small point-of-sale purchases totalling about $30. Seven transactions totalling about $90 generated $215 in penalty fees.

To be fair, Bank of America is not alone: all of the other banks seem to do the same thing. As a comparison, I just visited branches of Wachovia and Citibank in the BaltoNorth area and asked them what they would recommend for a student checking account. None of the three mentioned basic-ATM cards anywhere in their brochures. None of the three mentioned basic ATM cards in one-on-one conversations, even when asked for alternatives to check cards.

So, be aware that all of the banks seem to steer you to products that generate more penalty fees for themselves. All banks, even when dealing with their least knowledgeable customers, seem to forget to mention the products most likely to lead to responsible money management.

Buyer beware.

UPDATE: Bank of America's single nod to the likelihood that 18 year old students might mismanage their checking account is to sell the student another product -- an overdraft account -- and give them a ridiculous Stuff Happens® card.

Of course the wiser more-ethical path would be for banks to promote the basic ATM card that leaves no possibility of overdrafts. This product brings home very clearly to the student that a zero balance means you can't take any money out.