Friday, April 29, 2005

"Your call is very important to us."

You've heard the message before, I'm sure. You call some bureaucracy, let's call it the Veterans Administration. And let's say further that its a billing question, nothing dramatic, just an incorrect billing address on your account, despite the fact that you've informed the VA at least twice, once in writing for sure at your local clinic. Let's say that it's the Clinic in Key West --just for the sake of argument. There's a toll-free number on the statement, but you don't have a regular land-line telephone, only a cell phone account, so you get charged for using the phone during business hours.

You call the toll-free number and get through on the second ring -- to the voicemail system that uses the first 30 seconds of the call to greet you, tell you what working hours are (9-5, weekdays only), thank you for calling, inform you about what information you need to have ready, and let you know that the call is being recorded. You are asked to hold on for "the next available agent".

After six minutes, you've listened to this message repeated six time: "All agents are still busy. Please stay on the line, as your call is very important to us." Yeah, Right!

It isn't that uncommon, is it? Governments seem to be worse than private industry, but the problem is endemic wherever we "public" need to communicate with a "customer service" entity in some large organization. Rarely do you find a system that attempts to tell you how long you're going to have to wait. Rarely is there any other way of contacting the organization, except perhaps by postal mail. No e-mail, no fax number, no web site contact. Often there is only a window of time that meets the needs of the organization rather than those of the customers. And heaven forbid you be allowed to leave a message or get a call back.

That said, I'm not criticizing the entire VA. As I've said in the past, I get good medical care from the VA. I'm satisfied with that part of the system.

The last time I went there, in March, Doctor Mahoney reminded me that my MRI showed a cyst on my right kidney, and he ordered up an ultrasound to make sure that it was something benign. He said that it is over 90% of the time. He offered to schedule the ultrasound at the Miami Medical Center, and told me that VA rules prevented him from prescribing and authorizing the ultrasound to be performed locally, even though there is a lab right here in Key West, on Duck Avenue. The trip to Miami is an all-day adventure, starting with a Monroe County Veterans Affairs pickup at 5:15 AM, the 3-1/2 to 4 hour drive to Miami, waiting for your scheduled appointment, the 20 minutes or so to do the procedure, then the wait for the van to leave and 3-1/2-4 hours back to Key West.

Well, I thought, no problem. I'm covered under Medicare now, so I'll just have the good doctor give me a prescription and I'll call the local private center and have them do the ultrasound. Easy, right? Save a whole day? Wrong. It was too easy. A private ultrasound clinic accepts Medicare assignments. But the prescription has to be from a private doctor, a family practitioner, an internist, or the like, someone that the Medicare administration "recognizes". They don't recognize VA doctors.

So I complain, but like a good Do-Be, I just called a local walk-in clinic, spoke to the receptionist, and was told to come on in (late mornings are the best time) and the doctor would talk to me then write the order for the ultrasound. How efficient is that, eh?

Customer Service. All companies and organizations claim to offer it. Too often it is bad enough to sour a customer on the organization. It isn't that hard to do. It's why I go "wow" when I run into a good experience, as sometimes happens. Just not often enough.

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