Jump the phone queue: Tweet your health insurance gripe

By Beth Orenstein Posted : 05/01/2014

A woman wanted to pay her new health insurance premiums but couldn't seem to get the company to take her money. So she tweeted her frustration, naming the carrier. The next day she received a tweet back from @HorizonBCBSNJ telling her to email SocialMedia@HorizonBlue. A few emails later and her problem was resolved.

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A new Aetna subscriber needed her ID numbers used by pharmacies when filling prescriptions), but she hadn't yet received her insurance card. When she couldn't get through on the phone, she tweeted her frustration, naming the carrier. Her tweet worked. Within a short time, she had heard from @AetnaHelp and was told how to obtain the numbers she required.

Tweet your health insurance gripeSuch stories abound these days. Health insurance consumers are taking to Twitter when they can't get satisfaction through traditional channels such as telephone and email.

Social media staff

Charles Ornstein, a senior reporter for ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative news organization in New York, calls tweeting to get a health insurance company's attention "the digital equivalent of line-jumping" and says "it appears to be working."

Communicating with health insurance companies via social media has become so popular that insurers must often have staff devoted to dealing with messages they get via tweets and Facebook.

Covered California, the government-run marketplace for health insurance in California, has two full-time social media community managers. They deal with an average of 500 comments a day through Facebook and Twitter, says Anne Gonzales, a Covered California spokesperson. Its social media team monitors its Twitter feed and Facebook and Instagram accounts 24/7, she notes.

Gonzales says how fast Covered California responds to a tweet depends on the complexity of the question. "We respond to most people with 24 hours," she says. "As we catch up on answering questions, we can respond as quickly as within 15 minutes. Questions that take more research may take a few days to respond to."

Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey has a small team within its public relations department to respond to complaints sent via social media sites, including Twitter.

When members gripe on social media, Horizon asks them to send its company's service team an email so it can investigate further. "Ultimately, member issues that are raised on our social media sites are addressed by our service teams just as those that come through conventional channels," says Thomas Vincz, public relations manager for Horizon.

In response to its customers' comments on social media, Anthem Blue Cross in California created a customer service Twitter account, @AskAnthem, a couple of years ago.

Customers have tweeted that they can be on hold for hours waiting to speak to someone who can help answer their question or resolve their issue via telephone. But when they tweet about it, the response seems to be nearly instantaneous.

Public forum 'helps everyone'

Gonzales says most of the questions Covered California gets via Twitter and Facebook are generic: How do I apply? How do I pay my premium? How do I keep my same doctor? What's the status of my application? When will I get my ID cards?

Everyone benefits from the public forum, Gonzales says. "Many questions are similar and by posting publicly others are able to get their questions answered as well."

If the questions are more personal in nature, the author is asked to send a private message on Facebook to finish the conversation, says Gonzales.

Vincz, of Horizon, says federal privacy laws don't allow health insurance companies to address personal health information in public forums, and that's why it asks those who contact Horizon via social media to continue the conversation in private if necessary.

Insurance company reputations at stake

Ini Augustine, a social media strategist and head of SocialWise Media Group in West Des Moines, Iowa, thinks consumers might also be more inclined to vent on Twitter because "when you're in front of a computer screen it doesn't have a face," Augustine says. "So it's easy to be angry and complain vehemently."

On the other hand, she says, companies must respond quickly because the forum is so public.

When you tweet or post on Facebook, anyone online see it, she says. "Companies need to track what is being said about them because it's going to be out there forever. From a company perspective, they're doing this to protect their reputation."

If companies don't respond quickly to complaints in social media, they could have a public relations disaster, Augustine says. Even if the complaint isn't valid, it's out there and could spread easily and be assumed to be true, she says. "Having social media people on your company's team has to be part of your business plan because the repercussions can be serious."

Others could ruin it

However, Laura Northrup, an assistant editor at Consumerist.com, thinks if too many people use Twitter to vent about their health insurance, the novelty will wear off and it won't continue to work as well as it has been.

"What I've noticed is that social media representatives can give more individualized attention to people who complain via Twitter because there are fewer of them and people don't usually take to Twitter for routine issues," she says in an email. "If people do use Twitter before calling, emailing or filing a support ticket, that dilutes the power of this tool and creates more work for what is most likely a very small team at the company."

If the Twitter queue gets as crowded as the phone queue, consumers will need to find another back door for fast service. So shhhhhh, don't tell anyone.

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