New, Retroactive, and Secret

I should start by saying that I love Canada. And Canadians. We are very fortunate to be able to live here while my bride pursues her degree, and I have been the beneficiary of many kind acts by Canada, and Canadians.

That being said bureaucracy is a condition which neither knows or respects a border. Bureaucracy does not care about Canada’s well-deserved reputation. Like cancer, it springs up where you least need it. As evidence, I give you a recap of my recent experience with the billing department of the Canadian medical system.

bureaucracy (byoo-rok-ruh-see) From the French for “This is going to hurt, and will also take a great deal of time.”

I was on hold. I had called this part of the Canadian government after opening a bill that demanded immediate payment for healthcare. We pay a very reasonable amount each month for healthcare coverage, but this new bill was for exactly half of the monthly amount I had already paid a few days before.

Besides the amount, there were several odd things about this bill. It claimed it was produced on November 8th, but I had not received it until the 20th — leaving just a few days for payment before it would be considered late. And, for whatever reason, it claimed that this current charge was retroactive, for October.

After nearly ten minutes on hold the very cordial bloke unfortunate enough to answer my call returned and announced that he could only speak to my wife about the charge.

“Are you sure? Other than the dates and the amount it looks exactly like our regular bill. I’ve talked to you guys before when this was all set up. I’m in your system.”

“I apologize, but no. I can say nothing further about this bill to you. Your wife can call us back and we’ll explain it to her.”

My bride, who spends seventy-plus hours each week on her studies and teaching duties, was at school. Upon her return, she was not eager to devote time to this effort. She knew of no reason why there would be a new charge and, frankly, had better things to do. The bill was secured to the fridge with a magnet for a couple of days until I, the itchy one who doesn’t want to be late with a payment, called back into the system. The lengthy hold repeated but I eventually explained the situation to a rep and suggested that I could pass the phone to my wife so that she could provide the confirmation they needed.

He agreed. My wife grudgingly put down the article she was reading, took the phone and confirmed her name, her address, and her date of birth. Moments later she handed the phone to me and went back to reading. A little mystified as to how this simplistic Q&A had provided extra security (if I didn’t know her birthday by heart I’d have much bigger problems), I asked the rep if we could now discuss the bill. He agreed.

“Ok, I’m just curious as to why we’re apparently being billed retroactively in an amount that is exactly half of what we normally pay.”

“Yes, Sir, it’s terribly confusing. This is a very new program and I understand why you called.”

“Thanks, it also seems strange that we received it at the end of November even though it states it was produced on the 8th and only provided a few days to make a payment — and I’m glad to pay whatever we owe.”

“Of course, yes, I see your confusion.”

About five minutes of double-speak later I officially capitulated. Bureaucracy had triumphed. I no longer cared why this was happening. I just wanted it to be over. “I think you said that these additional payments end in December, so why don’t I just go online to my Canadian bank account and make a payment equal to three months?”

“Oh, no Sir, I would not recommend paying online. This is a new program and the money will end up in the wrong spot.”

“Hmmm. Ok, my bank is just down the street. I’ll just take the bill and the teller can make the payment.”

“Unfortunately, no Sir. This is a very new program and the banks won’t know how to process it.”

I paused to gather myself. Banks here can pay any bill you bring them and I’ve been in line several times behind people who bring their monthly stack of bills to the teller. I also could not help but notice that the bill was emblazoned with the phrase, “Payable at most Canadian Financial Institutions.”

“So, this very new program is both retroactive, and, to some degree, secret?”

“Yes, well, I don’t know about secret.”

“Does this program have a name?”

“It’s different than the regular program.”

“I get that, but does it have an actual name?”

There was a shuffling sound. After it was clear that there would be no answer to that question, I tried another path. “Ok, if I can’t pay online or through my bank, how do I pay this bill?”

“You can send us a check.”

“Unfortunately, I have no checks. We do everything online or with our credit card.”

“I can transfer you to the credit card processing area and they can take your payment.”

An ugly thought fluttered across my brain: this was all a scam. I was about to raise my hand and volunteer for identity theft — but I’d already confirmed that this was the same — and only — number for this particular part of the Canadian government.

My desire to move on with my life trumped my fears, and I said, “Ok. Fine. Please transfer me and I’ll pay them for three months’ worth of this charge.”

“I’m sorry, Sir, but you won’t be able to pay for three months at one time.”

“Ummm… didn’t you say that this program ends in December? That’s three months.”

“No Sir, they will only be able to process payment for October. You will have to call back to make the other payments as you receive the new bills.”

He transferred me, and I reminded myself that every country has its quirks. Four years spent in Central America should have left me able to handle anything that Canadian bureaucracy throws my way. I think…

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