Whirled by the Hobags (200604-07)
There was a point on this trip when my Financial and Menu Adviser and I checked our bank accounts and discovered we had about twenty United States dollars between us. We looked at each other, and for just a moment, there was silence. That was a pretty strange thing, for starters. There are plenty of comfortable silences between us, but anybody who knows either of us also knows that we could both talk both balls off an elephant. So, on this beautiful sunny day in Kunming, China, standing outside an ATM, we looked deep into each other's eyes, as couples do, and shared one thought, as couples also do: Holy shit, are we fucked! The shock of finding ourselves buried up to our necks in catshit quickly gave way to anger. We knew this had nothing to do with our lack of planning, or our poor fiscal acumen. I'm all for taking responsibility for one's actions, but despite the constant, daily badgering by us of our insurers, the Lonely Planet-recommended World Nomads, they had not yet paid me for expenses incurred during my hospitalization. Now, at the far southwestern end of China and more than two months after the even, we were stuck with no way out. Neither of us is much of an idiot, either, and we saw this coming. Back in Lijiang, when we had US$45 between us, I called the US Embassy to ask them to exert some pressure on World Hobags. The guy I was speaking with explained that they couldn't do anything. I said I understood, which I didn't, and told him again how dire the situation was and that we had exhausted all other avenues. Finally, he agreed to give them a call and I gave him my case number. He called me back about a half-hour later, and told me that they said they couldn't access any of their computer records without my account number. Of course, they mysteriously neglected to tell this poor embassy employee that the case numbers are, in fact, the account number with an extra three digits, to differentiate one case from another. Do I even need to describe the rage seizure I had when I found out that Hobags was so unscrupulous and possessed so much chutzpah that they'd lie to the U.S. Embassy? Isn't that a federal crime? Heck, Clinton got impeached for less. Chutzpah doesn't really describe it, though. Chutzpah is when you have the guts to do something outrageous, doing something that others might not necessarily agree with but essentially is an act demanding of respect. The mere concept that one of today's insurance companies deserves any kind of respect is borderline black humor. To their credit, World Nomads did pay for the essential hospital costs up front. The medical care I received and the room were paid for in full and with a minimal of fuss, or so I thought at the time. When the doctor in Vientiane called Nomads to get authorization for my evacuation to Bangkok for treatment, they agreed immediately, although the doc was unlike his American counterparts who have refused to treat patients without proper insurance. In a flat but forceful tone, he explained his diagnosis and then said, "I'm sending my patient to Bangkok on the next available flight. I'm glad you agree," and hung up the phone. The contract I signed with them also agreed to pay for food, transportation/evacuation and boarding cost "incidentals" incurred by me and my travel partner during the treatment period. Midway through my recuperation in the hospital, though, World Nomads started behaving more like a typical insurance company rather than a good one. A fax was sent to the hospital stating that I was not authorized to be in a "private room" when I had received earlier authorization for it. There was confusion on their part during telephone calls as to just what "incidentals" meant - it's frightening to think that an insurance company wouldn't have a pre-existing definition for something so important. Throughout my recuperation in Bangkok, I was constantly plagued by the gnats working at Hobags that seemed incapable of communicating with each other, or even making simple notes in my file. One woman - the "team manager," whatever the hell that is - even accused me of not having authorization from the company to be medically evacuated to Bangkok in the first place. I started laughing at her, because the alternative would have been to call her every foul name I could think of and then slam the phone down. Which I did once before, and surprisingly - got me nowhere. After my release from the Bumrungrad Hospital Nomads put me up for a week in Bumrungrad Suites, a posh hotel mainly for those recovering from treatment at the hospital who don't need to be confined to bed but who do need to be within walking distance of the hospital. Throughout the six days I was staying in the Suites, I tried to get all kinds of information about reimbursement from Nomads, and was met with utter chaos. One person said I needed to keep all my receipts, another said that only some were necessary. A third told me that I could stay an extra night at the Suites, since Hobags booked me in only until Friday, the day of my follow-up appointment; a fourth person freaked out when she discovered that all I had for this one night extension was "verbal" authorization. (As opposed to a fax or some other paper document, I assume.) Each time I had to deal with a new representative I had to explain everything again and re-fight all the formerly won battles. It was "Groundhog Day" from hell. Another person, but perhaps it was one of the previous four - it's hard to tell where one Hobag ends and another begins - spent three hours refusing to authorize reimbursement for our plane tickets back to Vientiane, let alone to where we were going. Three hours utterly stonewalling me, despite the fact that the insurance contract explicitly stated that after medical evacuation, clients could be sent back to where they were evacuated from if they were deemed medically fit. She tried pointing out that the Hobag's chief physician, in Australia, had decided I should be sent back home - based on the doctor's report on the day of my admission to the hospital. Nevermind the fact that my Bangkok doctor determined that I had healed enough to travel again, because the doctor actually examining the patient just could not have a better idea of the patient's condition than some random guy in the pocket of the insurance company, sitting in his golf cart thousands of miles away. Eventually, she capitulated. I got back at her by purchasing plane tickets to China, not Laos, and getting reimbursed for them. But the payback was a long time coming. In the contract, it states that World Nomads will make a reasonable effort to take no more than 10 working days to resolve all claims. Eight weeks after they received my claim documentation, I still hadn't been paid. After the 10 working day period had elapsed, I sent polite but firm emails to World Nomads. After 20 working days had gone, these nearly-daily missives were merely firm. After 25 working days, I let the sarcasm and anger loose. During this time, my glasses were stolen in Shanghai (another, separate claim) and the FMA was still working to resolve her claims from India. She filed those in February. Obviously, their treatment of me was not some isolated incident of incompetence, as they would eventually get around to indicating. "We don't know why your claim wasn't handled in a timely manner, and we are investigating the matter," was what their final email said. Shyeah, right. After more than six weeks of delays, just as I was entering Laos for the second time, they finally wired some money into my account. After spending even more time comparing their detailed list of repayment to my list of claims, I found that they had shorted me by $400. So the game of email-and-response, threaten-and-wait had to begin again. This story has a happy ending. I did get all of my money back. The hardship, though, of having to argue for every penny that was owed to me, not to mention being lied to and worst of all, being very scared that the FMA and I might be stranded in some backwater without any money, provided a terrible undercurrent of tension nearly drove us several times to quit in the middle and head home. After we returned to Bangkok for our final stop before leaving Southeast Asia, she said that now she understands why all those "little people versus the evil mega-company" movies have such big audiences. As for me, I've learned my lesson: never trust a company whose name rhymes with "hobag," because you'll end up with a stress level far worse than any social disease.