Thursday, May 19, 2011

An American Healthcare Survey

My landline phone rang today, a rare event in my household since we mostly communicate with friends and family via the internet, and are on the Do Not Call registry besides. But politicians and pollsters aren’t bound by anti-telemarketing restrictions, so I picked up the phone to hear a very young and meek-sounding woman who said she was with Blah Blah Polling Company conducting a survey about healthcare, and wondered if she could ask my opinion on a few matters and absolutely positively not try to sell me anything.

I don’t usually go along with such requests but did this time, thinking it would be interesting to hear what sort of healthcare questions pollsters currently focus on. Except the pollster asked me nothing about health care; she only asked about health insurance. Specifically, she asked me to name all the health insurance companies I knew about. I could only name two off the top of my head, though when she started reading company names off a list I recognized them all: yeah, I’ve heard of that one. Yes, that one too. Yes. Yes. Yep. Yup. Uh-huh.

Then my household health insurance status: yes, we have coverage in our household; yes, it’s through mine or my spouse and/or partner’s employer. No, without looking at my card I can’t tell you which health insurance company covers me now. (That’s because my doctor’s receptionist never asks for the name of my health insurance company, only the name of the employer who provides it. But I didn’t tell the pollster this, since she didn’t ask.)

Now she repeated her previous list of “Have you heard of this company” questions, only this time she pronounced the full, complete multi-word names of national corporations’ various Connecticut-based subsidiaries: instead of simply asking if I’d heard of Blue Cross, she asked about “Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield of Connecticut.”

Corporate names more than six words long all sound alike to me, so I told her the only full-name company I knew was Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Massachusetts, which once covered me. I didn’t tell her my opinion of said company – that it sucks like a vacuum cleaner on steroids – but she still made a discouraged sound halfway between “oh” and “eew.” (Note to non-American readers: in this country, health insurance companies in one state aren’t allowed to offer coverage in another. Thus, when I taught high school in Massachusetts my employer-provided health insurance would only pay for doctor visits in that state, though I lived in Connecticut.)

Nonetheless, she repeated the full Connecticut-specific subsidiary names of various insurance companies and asked if I’d heard of them: How familiar am I with This Company Healthcare and Insurance of Connecticut? What about That Company Connecticut Insurance and Healthcare? Other Company Connecticut Healthcare Insurance?

Then another list of questions: the last time I had to choose between different coverage providers in an employer-based plan, did I have the opportunity to buy a policy with Some Company?

“I don’t remember what the choices were,” I said. “I remember I went with Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Massachusetts, but don’t remember who offered the other options.” That didn’t stop her from asking if I’d had the opportunity to buy coverage from every insurance company on her list. “Are we almost finished here?” I asked. “I was in the middle of something.”

“There’s only a few more questions,” she assured me. “On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being ‘very interested’ and 1 being ‘not interested at all,’ how interested would you be in buying coverage with This Company Healthcare and Insurance of Connecticut?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’d have to see what they charge, what they cover, what the deductibles are, and how all that compares to my other options. Without knowing that, I can’t say.”

“There’s no right or wrong answer,” she assured me. “This is an opinion poll.”

“I know, but I have no opinion right now and don’t have the information I need to form one.”

“On a scale of 1 to 10, how interested would you be in buying coverage with That Company Connecticut Insurance and Healthcare?”

“I don’t know. How much would it cost me?”

“On a scale of 1 to 10, how interested would you be in buying coverage with Other Company Connecticut Healthcare Insurance?”

I told her I still didn’t know, and suggested she use that answer for the rest of the 1-to-10 interest questions and skip to the next batch. Of course, she couldn’t deviate from her script. So I told her I was sorry, but I wouldn’t be finishing the survey since I obviously couldn’t give her any useful answers, and I hung up before she could say anything.

You know what’s scary? Whichever twit of a lobbyist wrote that useless, monotonous cookie-cutter survey has more political influence and outright power than you or I ever will.


Blogger rhhardin said...

If you want to screw with a pollster, refuse to say that you refuse to answer a question but refuse to answer it.

Get into a metaconversation about the poll instead.

They're neither allowed to deviate from the script nor to hang up.

That drives their calls completed total way, way down, if you hang on until they discover some way out, like say-foring, where they start answering the questions for you to get to the end.

4:26 AM  
Anonymous James Hanley said...


Having been on both ends, polling and being polled, I half want to hug you and half want to kick you in the nads. (Just kidding!) I was involved in a serious polling effort with my research methods class, and people who wouldn't just answer the questions were worse than the people who just hung up on us. But for a poll like this, that is clearly a very badly done, unprofessional, effort that violates the standards of a good survey instrument, I think it is a good practice to muck them up. (Although I do have sympathy for the innocent person on the other end of the phone.)

2:28 PM  

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