February 8, 2012

I spent the day dealing with tax issues and health insurance coordination of benefits issues.  I try to take a positive attitude and think about how the workers I speak to are the lifeblood of our systems we rely on.  Actually, most of them really are quite pleasant to deal with — friction only arises when they don’t have the access to the resources necessary to help and I want them to be able to help, and I’ve learned to try to learn from them where to try next (frustrating when all they can suggest are others who are equally unable to help).

But I learned two fascinating things today.  One is that Congress did not authorize funds for training the IRS representatives whom taxpayers can reach by phone in how to fill out the Alternative Minimum Tax form.  I had a specific question about something vague in the instructions to one of the lines, and after the rep looked into his general information (which gave no further information on the point), we ended up both searching the internet using Google and getting some information about what kinds of situations the line in question pertains to.  He was apologetic, the rep was, and he explained how limited their training in the AMT form is and how they have been instructed to advise taxpayers to seek professional tax preparation help.  He said it was the result of Congress not authorizing funding for training in helping taxpayers with the AMT form.  I was surprised.  I kind of felt that if we taxpayers have to fill out the form, those who are requiring us to fill it out (including those of us who don’t owe AMT but have to fill out the form to determine that — yes, I tried using the IRS AMT assistant tool on line but fell into one of the categories of people who can’t use it) owe us some kind of sufficient explanation so we can fill it out.  (I do consult Lasser’s and things like that, but I just couldn’t find anything that elaborated on the point, and quite frankly, sometimes I’ve thought the explanations in Lasser’s on other points are paraphrased to the point of being misleading.)

The second thing I learned is how we leave health insurance phone reps unable to help when we divide up the issues, assign them to this, that and the other department, and have software written that means reps in each department can only see limited information and perform limited tasks.  The subscriber has an issue that fits into the system as designed one way, but the bureaucratic divisions among the insurers means that individual departments can’t actually handle the issue because they are not tasked with dealing with enough of the system to handle the issue as the system was originally designed — each of the departments handles a piece of it and at different stages, so none of them can actually produce the document I’m told I need.  Which sends me back to the employer’s benefits department, which felt ill-equipped to produce the document themselves when last I left off.

As I said, I try to focus on these workers as doing their thing to keep the hive humming, because if I focused on getting the task accomplished quickly and efficiently, I would become very frustrated.  I think we’ve made things too complicated, even if there have been reasonable policy justifications for each additional piece of complexity as it was added on.  But, it does get us all talking to one another and maybe learning to be more patient and compassionate in the process of trying to accomplish what we need to.


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