In contemporary American society virtually every adult citizen knows how difficult it is to obtain medical information regarding one’s spouse, parents, or other close relatives. Agencies–notably insurance companies–are adamant about not revealing even payment data if you are not the patient. Agents or receptionists working for health organizations fiercely insist they are not allowed to reveal to a spouse any and all information–such as insurance coverage for a medical procedure–even if you produce undeniable, unassailable information that you are the spouse. In this age of ultra-rigorous privacy for the individual there is absolute distrust of anyone who is not directly receiving the medical services. Anyone on the phone who is making an inquiry is to be treated with the utmost suspicion as if top secret classified information were at stake.
The refusal by agencies to reveal medical information even to loved ones is supposed to be reassuring. It suggests your privacy is sacred. But there is no privacy in America today. That is exactly what I told one mindless bureaucrat on the phone, who had called my home number to verify that my wife’s physician had officially authorized an MRI. After asking me for my name, my insurance company, and my benefit number, she then refused to answer any questions, even the most trivial, about my wife’s medical status.
As ordinary citizens, we have no right to trivial details concerning our loved ones and their medical situation, but our government has every right to every detail of the same, to include maintaining personal data in a data bank forever. All this is justified in the name of keeping us safe.
What bunk. The government says it’s protecting us, but what they’re really after is power. The power to know everything about us, including the most intimate details of our health. And that sums up much of what’s wrong with America today. Profit and power defeat privacy every time. The problem is that the profit-takers and power-makers are not content with money and perks. They say it’s all about us even when it’s all about them. One good thing: I don’t need a “private” medical test to tell me when I’m being screwed.
I don’t regret telling the functionary from the insurance company (associated with the MRI my wife needs) how much I scoffed at her insistence on protecting my wife’s privacy. I wanted her to appreciate the big picture before I conceded defeat. But she didn’t see the absurdity of “just doing her job.” What really irked me about her effort to deny me information about our insurance status in reference to the MRI was that she didn’t sympathize, let alone empathize, with my concerns and frustration.
I could have been interfacing with a computer. Indeed, she repeated several times while I was pausing in my rant regarding the absurdity of privacy policies in general: “Is there anything else I can help you with?”
Having recently seen the movie about Hannah Arendt and the trial of Adolf Eichmann, I thought of the impersonality of bureaucrats who hide behind the excuse “I’m just following orders.” Arendt noted the dangers of modern social systems that create and instill a high degree of mindlessness–mindlessness in the name of furthering the goals and purposes of systems and bureaucracies rather than the needs and rights of individuals.
The insurance agent refused to acknowledge my individuality, my humanity, you might say. I would have much preferred if she’d told me she understood my frustration or even if she’d told me to go to hell, but she hid behind bureaucratic impersonality. Like a little Eichmann, she was just doing her job, following standard operational procedures, a chair-bound functionary shuffling papers.
Truly, I would have felt better in my conversation with the agent if she’d sounded as diabolical as the psychopath Anthony Hopkins played in “The Silence of the Lambs.” Ah, a worthy opponent! But it was her very banality that got to me. Like Eichmann she was a (potential) monster because she wasn’t a monster!
Richard Sahn is a professor of sociology and roving contributor to The Contrary Perspective.