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Health Care Wed Sep 16 2009

On Healthcare: My Recent Experience at The Post Office, A Narrative

So I was at the post office the other day, mailing something to my special lady friend. It's long distance so you really have to send letters and what not to keep points on the scoreboard, so to speak. I had tried FedEx and UPS, but their prices were astronomical - $60 bucks versus $10 - $20 for USPS.

There I was, putting some stuff in a box and filling out all the appropriate forms, when some girl came in to ship something. It was only the two of us there at the Post Office, so I could easily hear her conversation with the USPS employee. The girl was trying to pay for her purchase with a credit card that said "See I.D." where the signature bar is on the back. The USPS employee was not down with that. You see, their policy is that you have to sign your cards. "You can sign your card right now, but we won't take it if it's not signed," the employee told the young lady - the damsel in distress, you might say.

"I work at a bank," the girl protested. "We tell all of our customers to write 'See I.D' on the back of their cards because it's more secure. Your I.D. has your signature and your picture on it. It helps protect against theft."

"Hard to argue against that logic," I affirmed her silently in my mind. This was, after all, the same policy that I myself practiced.

"Our policy says that you have to sign the card," the employee persisted.

"But you can just see my I.D." the girl continued in futility.

"Ma'am you can either sign the card now or pay with cash," repeated the error message, reminiscent of the infuriating experiences we've all had with some type of electronics that malfunction despite all forms of reason. The customer yielded, her white flag waving as she handed over the cash for her purchase. Her head hung low as she marched out of the building, defeated.

"Not me," I thought rebelliously. "You're gonna see my I.D., and you're gonna like it." I walked over to the counter, my chest inflated with an air of defiance. Having rung up the costs of shipping my blindingly romantic, swoon-inducing package, the employee asked for my payment. I offered up a credit card that pleaded for the merchant to ask for my I.D.

"We don't take cards that aren't signed," the employee spouted like a recording as she pointed to the little sign with their policy printed on it, the section regarding I.D. highlighted.

"My Father works at a bank. Putting 'See I.D.' is more secure," I said. True story, my Dad really does work for a bank.

"Do you want to talk to the post master?" the employee said, appealing to their ultimate authority. "Finally" I thought, "I can speak to someone with a mind."

I was wrong.

A bald man in his 50's or 60's puttered out from "the back room" where the dark alchemies of postal service are performed and came up to the counter to speak with me. "Is there a problem?" he said.

"Yes. I am trying to pay with my credit card. It is unsigned, but it says 'See I.D.' on it. This is actually more secure than signing it, because if someone steals my credit card then they would need my I.D. as well. Then, were they daring enough to offer up both the purloined card and the I.D., you'd be able to quickly tell that you were observing a fraud because their face would not be my face." Triumph filled the air, echoing off of the walls with my flawless words. My tone was clear and stern, but peaceful. I did not yell or scream like an undersexed suburban mother, protesting the end of a sale at Kohl's. No, I just presented truth calmly and succinctly. I had changed the world in a small way, for the better.

"Our policy says that the card has to be signed or we can't accept it," the man said nasally, extinguishing the fireworks of victory.

"But didn't you hear what I just said? That's not secure."

"Well if they steal your wallet they would have your I.D. anyway," he said, making that face that people sometimes make when they feel threatened, as if they are clenching their ass cheeks in anticipation of a punch to the face.

"Right, they would. But they wouldn't have stolen my face too, would they? Unless we're dealing with an Eddie Gein character, in which case I would suppose credit card theft is the least of our worries."

"It's our policy. Our national policy."

"Understood, and I'll pay with cash. But maybe you could use your Postmaster powers - great as I assume they are - to affect a positive change in the system?"

"I have. This is our policy." He said, still standing with a slight lean backwards, ready to flee.

"Okay then." I said. I left the Post Office, my faith in humanity and customer service shat upon once again by reality.

I then began thinking, as thinkers like myself tend to do. What if this were health care? While I agree that the American health care system works just as well as punching yourself in the face does for relieving headaches, do I want to have this experience every time I need to get some kind of medical work taken care of? The talk of death panels is sensationalistic crap, the talk of communism/fascism is bloated rhetoric, but I can't ignore the experience I just had with a business that is operated by the government. These Post Office employees literally have no motivation or incentive for being flexible for a customer. What the hell do they care? There's still going to be a Post Office tomorrow whether I continue to patronize their establishment or not. They have their mouths firmly attached to the government's bountiful teat, why on Earth would they choose to "go the extra mile" to have "service with a smile"? The customer may always be right, but they don't give a damn about what's right. If "right" isn't in their policies, then "right" means nothing to them.

Are my fears well founded? Or am I just being a pessimist? I ask you the question that Third Eye Blind once asked all of us: How's it gonna be?

GB store

John / September 16, 2009 12:02 PM

Acceptance of unsigned credit cards by sales associates is prohibited by the rules of the Postal Service. All POs (should) have Sign 145 posted in their lobbies.

Ramsin / September 16, 2009 12:38 PM

Hm. And if the Post Office was still directly publicly controlled, you could contact elected officials and use your constitutional right of petition to change that rule.

Whereas if an insurance company has some ridiculous policy, you're shit out of luck...

I think public control comes out ahead on this one.

Kate / September 16, 2009 1:01 PM

Big picture: Despite the minor annoyance of this policy, are you able to obtain the service you wanted to use at a price lower than that offered by a private company? Yes? This public option still wins in the end, just like it will with health care.

Tim / September 16, 2009 1:34 PM

Yes and uninsured or under-insured people suffer, or in extreme cases, die on a regular basis because we lack national health insurance unlike every other western nation. But yeahn there was that thing where you were slightly inconvenienced at the post office, that was terrible.

Kaylee / September 16, 2009 1:47 PM

At first, I thought I was "some girl" because that was exactly how my last post office experience went down. The only difference is I don't work at a bank (go figure). I'd been using my "See Photo ID" credit card for years at post offices around the country, so I was understandably a bit shocked and annoyed at this sudden upholding of a policy I had known nothing about.

However, it's difficult for me to extend this experience to healthcare. I suppose I've only had good experiences with socialized healthcare in the past (specifically in Austria where, even as an American, my father got amazing treatment -- though it cost him MUCH more than it would have cost a citizen.)

The USPS has been around for eons and doesn't feel threatened by the general public's approval (after all, it was authorized by the Constitution in 1775; it's an institution); a new healthcare system would be eager to please and prove itself, especially after so much turmoil surrounding its inception. Wait another 225+ years and then ask the question.

Donovan / September 16, 2009 2:00 PM

Fun fact: They will let you sign the card right in front of them and then use it.

Plus, in today's world, you swipe the card yourself most of the time anyways. "Seeing I.D." is a thing of times past and probably will not undergo a revival like typewriters or Polaroid.

Anonymous / September 16, 2009 5:34 PM

Blah, blah...long distance girlfriend...blah office annoys me...blah blah...stupid anaology equating the post office to what is essentially Medicare and Medicaid.

That was the stupidest crap I've read on this site. Did you seriously equate in your mind the post office to single payer national health care? And it took you how many words to explain that you smoked too much dope that day?

Ramsin / September 16, 2009 6:15 PM

Anonymous--take it easy. I don't think Conor was wearing his policy wonk hat on this one. Civil debate folks.

Nicole / September 16, 2009 8:23 PM

Seriously, dude. No need to get so spicy.

Good Luck / September 17, 2009 9:43 AM


The USPS lost $2.4 billion from April '09 to June '09. That's slightly less than $1 billion per month! The only reason the USPS exists is that they are a federally protected monopoly.

You really want to make the case that they provide a lower cost service?

Corinna / September 17, 2009 12:59 PM

Wow, trying to make a point about the health care debate by running down post office workers . . . offensive and unhelpful when Kass did it a month ago.,0,391006.column

D / September 17, 2009 2:16 PM

I'm always worried when I see such irrational and emotional reactions to politicized issues. It seems that politics has effectively become religion. Political positions are now held to be sacred and any disagreement is met with reactionary invectives. There is only reflex here and no thought.

"This shows us that man in his entirety is being judged today in relation to political affairs, which are invested with ultimate value. In our judgment everything has become political and political affairs are the ultimate guidepost...the greatness of the state, its power to organize, and man's participation in the collective via political channels are the ultimate value symbols and criteria of our time, substituted for the religious symbols and criteria of the past." - J. Ellul

HotBeans / September 18, 2009 8:37 AM

Don't you love it when people leave rude comments on sites like this, but then don't have the courage to use their real name? LAME.

I have no problem comparing the PO to nationalized health care in this post because this article is simply a story that provoked thought for Conor. In no way is he claiming it to be anything else.

I to hold low hopes for government run health care. I realize that heath care needs reform, but more government intervention is not the direction I'd take. In the long run I fear the quality of health care being worse, with the US tax payer carrying the burden.

Instead of the Republicans spending all their energy on fighting everything Obama does, why not come up with some new solutions. I've been waiting for a unified and logical solution from them... and so far nothing.

Lynn / September 18, 2009 2:52 PM

Just to clarify. The Post Office policy only applies to credit cards. If you have "See ID" on the back of your debit card, their default is to run it as a credit card and tell you they can't accept an unsigned card. Just tell them to run it as a debit card--they have no rules requiring a signature.

Conor / September 18, 2009 7:47 PM

The Writer's Response Thusfar:

I must say that I am also a little discouraged by the lack of moderation and civility in responses to my article. It was intended to do two things: 1. Make you laugh through the telling of a funny and frustrating story, and 2. Stir up some fruitful conversation about the possibilities that await our country as we wade heavily into the issue of our nation's butt-humped healthcare industry. I find it mildly amusing that quacks on both sides of the partisan lines use the same hyperbolic strategies to bolster their arguments, instead of actually providing substance. Tisk tisk, readers. I expect more from you.

To John and Donovan: Please read the article before you post a comment. Both of you said things that were included in what I wrote, and you just made yourselves look silly.

To Ramsin: A good and valid point, thanks for raising it. While I agree to an extent, I still believe that as little government intervention as possible would be the best solution to the problem. And it is needed - insurance companies have gone highly unregulated far too long. This industry has developed into a literally deadly behemoth that is completely disconnected from its own purpose and product - to keep people healthy. I still don't believe that a public option would do anything more than create yet another inefficient arm of the government that increases our already absurd tax burden.

To Kate: True to an extent. I did get the services I desired at a "lower price," but the quality of those services was significantly less than what the private sector has to offer. Furthermore, as Good Luck wrote after you, an organization that provides lower prices while maintaining a consistently negative ledger can't really be praised, can it?

With a minor amount of government intervention in the form of strict regulations regarding pre-existing conditions, the approval of coverage, and medical malpractice lawsuits, etc, I believe the private sector would be in a better position to provide the marketplace with more competitive options. The analogy between postal services and healthcare breaks down pretty quickly, as one can see here. The point I was trying to make is that while I will deal with this kind of stupid bureaucratic crap when it comes to mailing packages, I fear very much how that would look when it comes to getting medical services necessary for my survival.

To Tim: This is the kind of hyperbolic example that really doesn't contribute much to the conversation. Did I say nothing should be done? No. I actually didn't make any statements at all, I quite moderately presented my concerns and asked questions about the situation. The example you provided is, to me, just a liberal version of the sensationalism that is presented to us by people like Glenn Beck.

To Kaylee: That's a pretty valid point, but I still don't think government intervention to the extent of a public option would be necessary or a good use of taxpayer money. Look at the way TARP funds have been spent, or any of the multiple stimuli that have recently been injected into our economy. Those actions weren't 200 years old. The government has no reason to be efficient - money wasted doesn't mean they're out of business. It just means we get a few points added to our income taxes. And while some may say that we can speak our concerns to our elected officials, I - admittedly pessimistically - do not believe that has any effect on the actual outcome of things.

To Anonymous: You've been pretty healthily reprimanded by other readers, so I don't know that I have much to say except that the "stupid analogy" I made was actually made by our president recently:

So maybe you should post an anonymous criticism of President Obama on any of his web media outlets. As so many other Americans say every day, he was my inspiration.

To Good Luck: Thank you for providing a different point of view.

To Corinna: Your link didn't work. I'm not sure what is offensive and unhelpful about my article - is it the content, or that someone else already covered the subject matter? Also, although my story was about my interactions with the post office workers (and made jokes at their expense, welcome to comedy!) the point of the article really wasn't to "run down" the employees themselves so much as to raise questions about the violently inefficient organization itself.

To D: Thank you for bringing an intellect and not a loud voice and a shaking fist.

To HotBeans: I too have been waiting for a moderate compromise between the two sides. The Republican party seems pretty unwilling to do anything that might restore our faith in their ability to do anything productive for our country.

To Lynn: You are correct. You can use a debit card at the post office even if it is unsigned. Thank you for adding that information, it is much appreciated.

Conor / September 18, 2009 8:41 PM

As a supplement, this website offers not only hilarious stories from medical workers from your local ER, but also a pretty interesting tone toward the healthcare debate.

Nice person in real life / September 18, 2009 11:45 PM

Conor, this was under the Mechanics section. While it was funny and somewhat quirky, it was not related to politics, really. I think that you have a future as a writer for pieces on "This American Life" if in your future pieces you refer less about what is potentially happening with a person's buttocks and use excreted for the expletive "shat." I think this is less commentary and more humor, but in a fun, light way. (I'd like to know more about the clerk or the supervisor, though. I look forward to part 2.)

S Willard / September 30, 2009 11:40 AM

This same thing happened to me today. I was trying to renew a PO box that I have had for years with a credit card I had used for years at the post office. I have See ID on my credit card too and went through the same issue. And they wonder why people hate the Post Office.

Postmarc / January 8, 2011 10:46 PM

I know this is a dated issue, but here is my $0.02 worth.

As an ex-USPS employee, I can tell you that the CC policy was not created by the USPS. The policy is direct from the US Treasury. In addition, the major credit card companies state very clearly that the cards MUST be signed.

Customers who have told us that "their credit card company said it was OK to put 'See ID'" on the back have never been able to produce that in writing. It usually was something they heard or read on a website.

Most of the time, I told them to sign it, AND put See ID, so we can check a photo ID to verify that they are the cardholder.

Postmarc / January 8, 2011 10:47 PM

I know this is a dated issue, but here is my $0.02 worth.

As an ex-USPS employee, I can tell you that the CC policy was not created by the USPS. The policy is direct from the US Treasury. In addition, the major credit card companies state very clearly that the cards MUST be signed.

Customers who have told us that "their credit card company said it was OK to put 'See ID'" on the back have never been able to produce that in writing. It usually was something they heard or read on a website.

Most of the time, I told them to sign it, AND put See ID, so we can check a photo ID to verify that they are the cardholder.

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