You're Pre-Approved For (Some) Health Care

Financial services companies have discovered a new angle, which is that it's up to us to straighten out the economic crisis they created.
Financial services companies have discovered a new angle, which is that it's up to us to straighten out the economic crisis they created.Yes, now you too can get in on the most lucrative idea since derivatives, which is to help financial services companies help you help them, hopefully quickly enough to keep the regulators off their backs.

Too much consumer debt? Skyrocketing health care costs? Corporate belt-tightening reducing your benefits? If these all seem like problems caused by forces beyond your control, you're right -- but don't let that get in the way of this new spin on reality.

Take health care as an example. Many employers are switching benefits programs from the familiar co-pay system to one where doctors get paid a portion of their bill by the insurer and then turn around and bill the balance to patients. You might think you were covered, but you weren't.

To help you plan for this monstrous turn of events, Cigna is offering a new tool (made by Quicken) that helps you figure out how much you'll owe your doctor, or how much you'll have to shell out for prescription drugs.

Cigna also provides accounts to help you save for future health care expenditures in FDIC-insured accounts managed by JP Morgan (some other financial institutions, like Wells Fargo, offer the opportunity to put your savings in funds that aren't FDIC insured, which is nice if you want to gamble with your health -- literally).

Tom Richards, senior vice president of products at Cigna, told me that these kind of tools get people more involved in their health, more likely to take their meds and watch their cholesterol intake. "By having individuals better understand their obligations, they become a more engaged consumer," he told me. It's a new take on the old slogan from Syms, the clothing retailer, which claims, "an educated consumer is our best customer."

Or, as Richards put it, "This will increase customer satisfaction and that will ultimately lead to customer loyalty and more customers."

Cigna is also offering doctors a new "cost of care estimator" so they can discuss options with their patients before deciding on a course of treatment. It's a new take on the bedside manner.

Discover Card has also gotten into the act with new online features like "Paydown Planner" and "Purchase Planner" tools to help you "spend confidently and stay in control," according to their literature.

But if the Paydown Planner is like closing the barn door after the horse is gone, the Purchase Planner is like opening it up again so the foal can stumble around in the daylight and get lost trying to find its mother.

Yeah, we're sorry we made it so easy for you to get into this mess -- oh, and we increased your interest rate because you can't stop us and we really, really need the money -- but just take a deep breath and see if you can't spend just a teensy weensy bit more.

So here's the deal: we get to play with a whole bunch of shiny new Web tools that will make us feel better about the financial hole we've dug ourselves, both as individuals and as a society.

Knowledge, they say, is power. But this isn't really knowledge; it's more like listening in on the tail end of a conversation between a couple of philosophers and feeling good because we recognize the words they're using, even if we don't understand how they all work together. It doesn't tell us anything about the meaning of life, but we feel good about the fact that we recognized a few words here and there.

There are surely those who will argue that we have to become more responsible about our spending habits, and others who will make the point that we should have a better understanding of the cost of health care. Good points.

But I've never heard of anyone recuperating faster by stressing over the cost of their procedures; and lenders know that people will spend more than they earn if you let them. If they didn't, credit card companies wouldn't be in business.

The new tools are at best a fig leaf financial services companies hope will keep regulators from looking too closely at their practices; at worst, they're an attempt to fool us into thinking that the mess we're in was all our fault to begin with.

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Samuel Greengard, Contributing Reporter
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
Carrie Pallardy, Contributing Reporter
John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author
Astrid Gobardhan, Data Privacy Officer, VFS Global
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing