Site Meter

Friday, May 20, 2011

Shilling for Bread

I suppose the title of this blog is a bit harsh but I just couldn’t resist the double entendre since I’m writing about what has been characterized as the “gluten free trend.” Most people confuse gluten with bread but it’s actually a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, bran as well as a food additive that thickens or stabilizes and is added to meats and processed foods. Bread on the other hand, also means money and there is plenty of it being made by food manufacturers jumping on the gluten free bandwagon. There is no small irony that gluten makes bread fluffy!

Part of the wide spread hoopla can be traced back to Ms. Chelsea Clinton’s nuptials and the news that the festivities included a $10,000 gluten free cake.  Snort at that if you must, but about 1% of the population suffers with celiac disease for which gluten is like eating a slow killing poison. I’m not one of them. I have gluten intolerance or sensitivity and you may too, especially if you are 50+.

To be fair, I must disclose that I subscribe to Time magazine and I usually find their reporting and coverage both responsible as well as reflective of my own sensibilities. (I also think Joel Stein is very funny.) This week’s issue, covering the dilemma that is Pakistan, was no exception but for the inclusion of a one page piece on the aforementioned gluten free trend. The focus of the article was on the recent surge in gluten free products now being offered at our local supermarkets and the misconceptions that consumers may possess about the health or weight loss benefits that might come with going gluten free. It also pointed out that gluten-free has become a major selling point and consumers are equating it with “low carb”.  It noted that some people may suffer from gluten sensitivity but there is no data on this.

Now I understand that my relationship to gluten may not be as newsworthy as Chelsea’s cake, but to all my contemporaries who suffer from arthritis (My knees are a mess. Thank you Nana Sophie), autoimmune complications (I have a wanky thyroid.), depression and/or ADD -- or have children or grandchildren that do – going gluten free may help alleviate some of the symptoms. And no, I’m not going all Jenny McCarthy on you. The connection to gluten and “curing” autism is none. Shame on her and the Doctor who claimed that inoculations caused autism.

So, here’s how I became gluten free. About a year ago my husband sent me an article (We email back and forth a lot.) about the connection between arthritis, autoimmune problems and gluten. It explained that gluten was being added to many foods that it was never in before and at higher levels. As a result, people who like breads or pasta (and who didn’t climb on the whole wheat wagon with me?) and other foods to which gluten is added; may over time develop gluten sensitivity. It went on to state that removing gluten from your diet might help alleviate some of the attendant symptoms.  Individuals reaching their 50s were most likely to be affected. Apparently we’ve been around long enough to suffer.

So, I called my friend Mary Anne, nutritionist and Celiac sufferer for her advice. My knees were a mess, painful enough to require a heating pad every night and being threatened with replacement by my specialist. Was there a test I could take to determine if I was indeed gluten intolerant? No, she replied. In fact when she had taken a test her condition didn’t even show up. The only way to determine if you are affected by gluten is to take it out of your diet for two weeks and see how you feel.

What a pain in the neck this was. I love to cook and this meant completely revamping my repertoire. All the pastas and breads disappeared. The first week was really rough. But I did it and lo and behold the pain in my knees disappeared. They still creak sometimes especially in rainy weather, but what a difference!  My son is now gluten free and finds he can concentrate on his homework more easily. He says that if he eats gluten now it makes him sleepy. Yeah us!
My household has adjusted and I find the gluten free adjustment has made me look more carefully at all of the foods we eat.  My carb intake now includes more rice and potatoes and corn – all gluten free. I love Chex cereals, gluten free and not expensive either. You can go to your local Whole Foods and ask for their gluten free product list and they’ll give you a 17-page print out. My only advice - don’t buy the gluten free English Muffins -- ever. They taste like wallpaper paste.
I didn’t take any tests but I can tell you that omitting gluten made a real difference. No one can actually diagnose your sensitivity but if you suffer from any of the ailments I’ve described, you may find relief in the gluten free aisle. 


Friday, May 13, 2011

Customer (Lack of) Service

I don’t blame the people I talk to. It’s everyone else in the world I blame.  As a member of the sandwich generation I’m snuggled uncomfortably between raising a teenager and caring for a aging parent.  Both can require full-time devotion. Both can require the patience of a saint.  Luckily for me, my son is kind, thoughtful and full of common sense because I have never been mistaken for a saint.

Unluckily for me I have a parent who does, for the moment, require all my time.  She is unto herself as they say, a piece of work.  But she’s all I got so I’m trying to make the best of it while the rest of the world conspires against me.

Case in point. I want to switch her cell phone to a “friends and family plan” I want to pay her phone bills both cell and land lines.  I want to suspend her home phone service while she’s in the nursing home.  I want to have a message on her home phone referring callers to my number.  One might think in the age of the Internet that this would be a slam-dunk since they are all with Verizon. Think again.  I cannot do any of this via their website.

3 hours of calls -- separate phone numbers and operators for each service and service change.  How many times do I need to be on hold listening to their promotion for Verizon Vios?  Even when I finally get to a breathing living human being, they want to know if I would be interested in bundling her cell, land and internet access for $99 a month .... Hello, did you not hear that my mother is in a nursing home? 

Adding insult to injury, I am told in one conversation that I may pay her bills by phone. However I will incur a $3.50 fee for the privilege of doing so. I am incensed. “Oh, it’s not a charge from Verizon, it’s blah-blah-blah company.” 

“Really? Well just because the name of the payment processing facility doesn’t include the word Verizon, does not mean that the money doesn’t go to Verizon. Do you understand how insulting this conversation is to me?”

Then I try to get her home phone service taken care of.  I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that I literally needed to hang up and call a different phone number to complete my business. Cell phone and land line customer service exist in two different universes. As a matter of fact just yesterday two Verizon Fios representatives rang my brother’s doorbell at home. He opened the door to a young man and woman who went into a sales pitch.  He told them that he hated Verizon (he had used them as an internet provider years ago) and that his sister (lovely me) had just had the most horrendous experience dealing with their phone services. “Oh, but we’re Verizon Fios, we don’t have anything to do with the phone services!”

Again, do you understand how insulting this conversation is to me? Hey doorbell ringers, can you spell Jehovah?

So I have switched my mother over to my account. One less bill for her to worry about I think. Today, three days after the switch, Horizon called her cell phone to tell her that she had exceeded her monthly minutes. (It was actually my phone calls that did it, handling all of the nonsense required to make it all easier.)  She was upset by the call because at this stage of her life, she’s upset by any phone call.  So I decided to handle it from work. Why they were calling her, the new addition to our service, was beyond me. I called the 888 number she had been given. The sales rep who eventually got on the phone asked my for my billing code number. I did not have the billing code with me but I did have all 6 phone numbers we have with Verizon.  I was told nothing could be done without the billing code so I asked to speak with a supervisor. I was told that the gentleman I was speaking with is a supervisor.  So I concluded my conversation with “ Your customer service is disgraceful. I hope this call is being taped.”

Not to be upstaged by Verizon, there is their cousin Horizon, the company with the perfect prefix. You know the “Health Care provider”.  How does an insurance company become a health care provider? Does it take your temperature?  Does it diagnose your ailments?  Where are the advertising police on this one? 

 Horizon provides what is euphemistically called “managed” health care which means they manage to charge you more, the more you use it.  At least that’s their strategy when it comes to elder care. They attract a large cluster of senior citizens by providing insurance policies with low premiums and then, when you really need services because you’re getting older and more decrepit, you pay for every aspirin, every sheet of TP and they may limit your days in the hospital or nursing home in any way they choose.  My mother fell into this trap and I’m trying to pull her out of it.

The coverage she has is called Horizon Medicare New Jersey, but it is not Medicare, it is just another insurance company. But by using Medicare and New Jersey in its name, it would be easy to see how someone might be confused. Seeking to extract her from this I was told by the business manager at her nursing home that the managed care coverage could not be just cancelled, it would require that she spend three consecutive days in the hospital to receive regular Medicare. 

This is not true, this is just boneheaded information and just one of the many substandard services and information the facility has provided.  Even the people at Horizon told me this when I called them.  But in order to have her released from the insurance, I was told by Horizon Medicare that it requires a “special election”.  What, I asked, was a “special election”?  I was told that because she is requesting Medicare outside of their “open enrollment period” that I had multiple forms to complete to get a waiver to enable her to do this. 

Then I was told that I would also need to complete a “Formulary” for her.  A what? A Formulary is the name for the list of prescription medications she receives.  I asked if everyone at Horizon called it a Fulmonary.  I was told that they do. Then I asked that she email all these forms to me so I could figure out what to do next.

I hung up and called Medicare. Not fake Medicare, the real one. I had a couple of questions for them.  

1. What is a special election? Bonilia at Real Medicare said I must mean a "special enrollment election."  The inclusion of the word enrollment at least helped to clarify what my mother, the new office holder, was up against.  I aksed if this was a Medicare term.  “Yes, it is” I was told.

2. How about a Formulary? Is that a Medicare term as well. “Oh, yes it is but Medicare needs to determine if she is a Tier 1 or Tier 2 recipient. “ Ok, I give up. What does that mean?  “Well we need to look at all the prescription medications she is receiving and determine whether we will cover it or not.“  What is the reason for covering or not covering a particular drug? I asked. Is it related to the cost?  “The ingredients in non generic drugs differ from generic drugs.  We need to examine whether or not we cover the particular ingredient.”  So, going back to my original question, is it related to the cost of the drug?  “Well, it is related to the cost of the particular ingredients.” Again, so this comes down to the cost of the drug.  “Well, yes I guess it  is.”  

Then I asked, when is the open enrollment period. To which she replied that “this year is was October 15th to December 7th.” 

What do you mean this year?  Does the open enrollment period for Medicare (which we all pay for with our taxes) change year to year? And if it changes, how do you notify the eligible consumer what the new open enrollment period is?  

“We send them letters every year. Every United States Medicare receipient, whether managed care or not, receive notification via mail. Last year the open enrollment period was November 15 to December 31.”  

So then I asked, well why does the open enrollment period change each year.  The Medicare person was unable to tell me why.  I asked if she could Email a copy of a typical letter to me. No, she could not.  It’s no wonder our national deficit is out of control. How much is Medicare spending to send snail mail to seniors every year?  Why do the open enrollment dates need to change?  I have a headache.

I have to stop now because I need to make another 50 phone calls to people who provide information that is wrong and boneheaded from the scripts sitting in front of them at their little cubicles earning minimum wage and deciding the fate of our families.