Dr. Julie Kanter had been trying — and failing — for two days to reach an agent at OptumRx.
The prescription benefits company abruptly denied a drug that her patient had been using for more than two years. And the medicine was quickly running out.
"This company — there’s no one to talk to," Kanter said. "There’s a fax number and all they do is fax you things."
So she used a fax machine to plead for someone — anyone, a human — to call her.
But no one called.
That's when Kanter, a sickle cell disease specialist at the Medical University of South Carolina in downtown Charleston, took to Twitter.
@Optum @OptumRx I need to speak with someone about a denial of a PA. You are changing someone’s long term medicine without even speaking to their physician. I need a person not a fax number ASAP. Thanks #sicklecell #advocate— Julie Kanter (@jkw4444) January 9, 2018
It turns out President Donald Trump isn't the only one airing his grievances with big business on Twitter. Research published by Conversocial in 2016 shows more than half of respondents, ages 18 to 44, have used social media for their customer service needs. Increasingly, Twitter and Facebook users bypass the 1-800 numbers and post their complaints — about everything from delayed flights to denied insurance claims — online.
But this doesn't mean companies are always quick to respond.
Fifty-three minutes after Kanter sent her first Tweet, OptumRx had not called her back. She sent another.
"I need to SPEAK to the person deciding to change my patient's long term medicine," Kanter tweeted. "I don’t need another fax or more paperwork. I need a human."
Five hours later, still nothing.
"You have denied a person’s medication that has improved her care (for 2yrs) without speaking to her doctor," Kanter tweeted. "This is wrong!"
The next morning, her campaign continued.
"This is ridiculous," she posted. "This patient has a (Medicare) part D, has been on the medication for more than two years and someone without an MD wants to change it. @Optum @OptumRx can not connect me to a live person. Patient out of meds."
Finally, 10 hours later, she reached a resolution.
"It took 2days and > 5 hours of phone calls to get the appeal on the PA so the individual could stay on the SAME medication she has been on for 2 years," Kanter tweeted. "Same dose. @UHC @OptumRx thank you for calling but this was time wasted."
OptumRx did not respond to questions for this article and, months later, Kanter called the exchange "incredibly frustrating." She quickly admitted that she resorted to publicly shaming the company, but she said she first tried every other avenue to solve the problem.
"That’s the sad part. I shouldn’t have to resort to social media to speak to someone," she said. "It’s totally messed up."
In the end, her patient was able to get the medication she needed, but the episode hardly inspires much hope for average customers, who typically have more trouble navigating the health care system than doctors do. Kanter's tweets also illustrate the fact that the American public continues to run up against problems with health insurance companies eight years after the Affordable Care Act was signed into law.
Ray Farmer, director of the South Carolina Department of Insurance and a member of Gov. Henry McMaster's cabinet, agreed with Kanter that insurance companies can be difficult to deal with.
And there's nothing worse than trying to resolve a problem when you can't reach a live person, he said.
"When somebody calls an insurance company, they have a concern already. They may be angry," Farmer said. "I detest those automated services."
The National Association of Insurance Commissioners reports that the share of complaints fielded by state insurance departments are increasingly related to health and accident claims. In 2015, those complaints accounted for 39 percent of all closed complaints. In 2017, those complaints topped 41 percent of the total share.
Farmer's agency processed more than 11,800 complaints, related to all types of insurance, last year.
Consumers can call the South Carolina agency and speak to someone relatively quickly, although "it may take a button or two," Farmer admitted. They can also file a complaint online.
"We have a portal on our website," he explained. "They can send me a note as quick as anything."
Kanter, for one, said she wouldn't rule out using Twitter again. After all, it worked.
"The medical system sets everybody up to fail," she said. "I was desperate to get this patient what she needed."