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Using plastic to pay Anthem bill? Prepare to lose your coverage

Notice of cancellation was a shock to one policyholder who had been making automatic payments with her credit card. It's just one case involving a policy switch at the health insurer.

September 20, 2011|David Lazarus
  • You can still make payments by credit card. But you have to remember to call in every month to do so. If you forget, your coverage can disappear. Above, Anthem Blue Cross' headquarters in Woodland Hills.
You can still make payments by credit card. But you have to remember to call… (David McNew, Getty Images )

Andrea Kreuzhage is the kind of customer all health insurers dream of having. She's in excellent shape, never submits medical claims and pays all her bills on time.

So, of course, Anthem Blue Cross canceled her coverage last week.

This is the latest twist in Anthem's decision to no longer allow members to make automatic payments with credit cards. As Kreuzhage's case illustrates, it may not be a smooth transition for many people.

She was told by the company that she was joining the ranks of the uninsured because she didn't pay her bill.

"This occurred either because Blue Cross did not receive your premium within 31 days of the premium due date, or because we did not receive sufficient funds to cover your premium," Kreuzhage, 48, was informed by letter.

"I was shivering when I read this," the Baldwin Hills documentary filmmaker told me. "I had done everything right. I had never missed a payment. And yet now I had no health insurance for the first time in my life. It felt like doomsday."

It wasn't doomsday. It was just an example of a major corporation turning the screws on a customer to get what it wanted.

In this case, what it wanted was access to Kreuzhage's checking account, rather than her credit card account.

Anthem announced a few months ago that it planned to stop allowing members to automatically pay their bills by credit card. For those still wanting to use plastic, they could call a service rep each month and give their card number over the phone, although this would entail a $15 "convenience fee."

After I first reported the policy change, for which Anthem repeatedly declined to provide a rationale, many readers speculated that the insurer may be trying to dodge costly credit card processing fees. Some also wondered whether Anthem was trying to make it easier to get rid of members who might miss a payment.

The company said it would reconsider the $15 fee only after I reported that California law says no business "in any sales, service or lease transaction with a consumer may impose a surcharge on a cardholder who elects to use a credit card in lieu of payment by cash, check or similar means."

A spokeswoman for Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris said state officials were concerned about Anthem's move and would "monitor the situation and make sure health consumers are protected."

Kreuzhage has been making automatic payments to the company by credit card for more than a decade. "It's more convenient," she said. "I never have to worry about missing a payment."

But after receiving the letter about her coverage being canceled, Kreuzhage called Anthem and was told that the insurer was no longer charging premiums to her credit card.

Nobody at Anthem had called to warn her that her bill wasn't being paid, she said. The company didn't bother to send an email. It just waited for 30 days to pass and then cut off Kreuzhage's coverage.

After pointing out to a service rep that she'd been a customer in good standing since 1995, Kreuzhage succeeded in getting her coverage restored. But only if she agreed to have all future bills deducted from her checking account.

Kreuzhage felt as if she was being muscled, but she was determined to do whatever Anthem wanted for her to remain insured.

"I've tried to explain to my friends and family in Europe how the healthcare system works here," Kreuzhage said. "They just can't conceive of a system that works like this."

Indeed, people in other countries are often mystified by the United States' position that healthcare is a privilege and not a right, and that for-profit insurance companies get to decide who has access to treatment and who doesn't.

An Anthem spokeswoman, Kristin Binns, was unable to comment on Kreuzhage's experience for privacy reasons. But she acknowledged that the company stopped allowing automatic credit card payments as of Aug. 1.

She also said the $15 fee for using plastic remains on hold — a move that appears to get around the California law prohibiting surcharges for using a credit card.

So here we are. By allowing only automatic payments from checking accounts, Anthem has clearly tipped the scales in the company's favor.

Sure, you can still pay by credit card. But you have to remember to call in every month to do so. If you forget, your coverage can disappear.

Kreuzhage, for one, has learned her lesson. She's forked over the checking account number that Anthem wanted all along and now approaches her health insurance with a renewed sense of humility.

"If this is how they treat me when things are perfect, when I file no claims, how are they going to treat me if I ever have a serious medical problem?" Kreuzhage asked.

She probably doesn't want to know.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com

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