Monday, January 11, 2010

Bills Bills Everywhere: Bureaucracy and Brazil


On Sunday, August 2, 2009, as I was driving to the New Brunswick train station in order to take a train to head to Manhattan for work, I got rear-ended by some careless young woman. The car accident led to a small cut above my left eye, and it required me to be carted off to the local Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital for about four stitches. Thankfully, no other serious injuries arose from the accident, only those stitches; I was able to go to work the next day, and I only needed those stitches until the end of that week.

Little did I know, however, what would await after those stitches came off: lots of bills, and lots of frustration in trying to get those damn bills paid.

The trouble begins when my mother—who I expect to be more well-versed in these kinds of insurance-related matters than I am—steers me wrong by maintaining that all I have to do is just fax all the medical bills I receive to Allstate, our family's auto insurer, and that Allstate will take care of everything. (I mean, if Dennis Haysbert, aka President David Palmer, says I'm in good hands with Allstate, it must be true...right?) Which I do...but it turns out, no, there are state-imposed ceilings and deductibles and such that limit the amount that Allstate will cover, and that, if I am to try to get the rest of the bill amounts reimbursed, I will have to then go through my health insurer—which, in my case, is Aetna.

Thus, after weeks of naively thinking that, once I fax all my hospital bills to Allstate, everything will be taken care of, I only then finally decide to take matters into my own hands. I file medical claims to Aetna for all the bills that still need to be covered. One of them seems to be taken care of without a problem (or so it seemed), but in the case of another one, apparently they need more information. I call Aetna and find out what else they need; the guy I speaks to tells me that I could cut down on paperwork by requesting a "payment ledger" from Allstate listing all that my auto insurer has covered thus far. I follow this dude's advice and request to have one sent to my home, and I fax that and some other papers to Aetna. Days later, I check Aetna's Web site and notice no changes made on that claim in my account. I call Aetna quite a few times to find out what's going on. During one of those times, a lady I speak to says all that they really need for "more information" was to let them know that it was related to a car accident—which, of course, totally goes against what the guy I had spoken to previously had told me. I continue getting bills from Robert Wood Johnson demanding payment, and of course I fax those bills along with medical claim forms to Aetna...but they never show up on my Aetna online account before 2009 is out. I feel compelled to call them again, and of course I get a different person on the other end of the line, this time telling me that they never received certain papers that I'm 99% certain I did indeed fax.

All the while, I'm marveling at how needlessly complicated all of this is. Can't they just have someone assigned to my case to handle all this? Instead, I get different people telling me different things; I deal with workers at a health-insurance company who don't even seem to check faxes regularly (I was told at one point, maybe a week or two after I had faxed a bunch of papers, that some of them might still be sitting underneath a pile somewhere); and overall, I get barely any closer to resolving this situation.

Even after spending four years at Rutgers University—which is, among other things, infamous for its "RU Screw," a term coined for any unfortunate situation a student experiences as a result of the sprawling university's inherently unwieldy bureaucracy—I don't think I've ever truly experienced the irritations of bureaucracy this acutely until now!

Perhaps this explains why, when I finally got around to seeing Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985) on DVD Saturday, I was immediately drawn in by its deadly accurate satire of bureaucracy run amok. Here, amid Gilliam's endlessly inventive visuals and absurdist, sometimes bracingly adolescent, sense of humor, was a film that embodied my frustration with the seemingly never-ending bureaucratic nightmare that is Aetna. It's beautiful—the beauty of personal recognition.

In Brazil, Gilliam blows up the fairly mundane evils of dehumanizing bureaucracy into a dystopian nightmare universe in which authorities claim that everything is running smoothly even when it's not, dissent is squashed like flies on a ceiling, and its inhabitants are reduced to extreme paranoia. In such an environment, people are merely cogs in a machine whose whole reason for existence is just to be as coldly efficient and orderly as possible, nothing more and nothing less. In this environment, people even get receipts after citizens' arrests! In short, paperwork, not the human touch, is paramount, and to get to the right people requires jumping through endless departmental hoops.

That's why the image above especially resonates with me. It comes two-thirds of the way into the film, after Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) has made a mess of things at his new Information Retrieval job in his attempt to capture/pursue his dream girl (Kim Greist). After being rejected by his friend Jack (Michael Palin), he returns to his tight-quartered office and starts getting letter after letter delivered to him via pipes from the ceiling running into the office. Lowry gets so frustrated by it all that he takes a tube and sticks both ends of it into the two pipes, thus clogging up all the pipes throughout the floor. This leads to the explosion of papers seen in the above screen grab. You wouldn't think the image of a bunch of papers flying around would be particularly compelling...but in the context of Brazil, flying pieces of paper are given an odd kind of lyricism, especially with Michael Kamen's amazingly rich score in the background. Most of the events of Brazil take place around Christmas, and the way the other workers react to this confetti of paper, you would think they were looking at snow falling from the sky.

This image, representative of one defiant man's angry attempt to take the whole bureaucratic system and shove their paperwork right up its figurative ass, feels cathartic to me in ways you can't even imagine. But, of course, then I remember that I still have hospital bills that need to be paid. Apocalypse...later, I suppose.

Oh yeah, and Brazil is absolutely, positively dope.

No comments: