Welcome to MassHealth? Sometimes it's a welcome for which residents have to fight.

Welcome to MassHealth? Sometimes it's a welcome for which residents have to fight.

I’ve had an amazing time on the phone today with MassHealth, the state agency that provides required health care to the needy. And by amazing, I mean pretty bad.

Lacking a full-time job, my primary income is Connecticut unemployment benefits, and I thought it was kind of enervating but reasonable that the state wanted proof of that, and of my citizenship, before granting me MassHealth. Last month I mailed photocopies of my passport photo and information and my “monetary determination of unemployment compensation benefits” form from the State of Connecticut Department of Labor.

Today I called to find out why I hadn’t heard back.

My citizenship had been accepted, I was told, but my income form had been rejected. “The verification receipts don’t show a weekly gross,” I was told by state worker Luz Hernandez, reading from a computer file of another worker’s notes.

But it does, I said. I’m looking at the original form.

She wasn’t looking at it, though. After a 20-minute search didn’t turn up my papers, Hernandez said they had “probably” been sent to the Central Filing Unit, and she’d have to see the rejected form to understand what happened.

It could take a long time to find them, but I could also just fax another copy. (Sometimes people working in offices forget how everyone doesn’t have a fax machine sitting around. Or a land-line phone on which to run it. The local UPS Store has both, but charges $1.49 per faxed page.)

Here’s what I heard the state telling me: We rejected your form and can’t tell you why. So just send it again!

Seeking a more general answer as to what I did wrong before being forced to repeat the mistake, I had Hernandez bump me up the chain of command to Andrew Andriopoulos, manager of the Central Processing Unit, who sort of listened as I read MassHealth’s own description of what it wanted from me (“a copy of your check stub or award letter; a statement from the company or agency issuing the payment or benefit”) and what I’d provided (the “monetary determination of unemployment compensation benefits” form from the Connecticut Department of Labor). I asked him: Hadn’t I provided what was requested? What did I do wrong? What should I do differently to ensure I’m providing the right information?

He couldn’t answer my questions, he said, because he didn’t have the form I’d sent.

But I’m telling you what I sent, I said. Wasn’t it right? If not, what should I have sent?

He couldn’t answer my questions, he said again, because he didn’t have the form I’d sent.

We went around like that for a while.

This is sort of like asking an auto mechanic if he can diagnose what’s wrong with my 1999 Audi A4 only to be told that he can’t say until I bring it in so he can see what kind of car it is. And I repeat that it’s a 1999 Audi A4 and he says he has to see it before he can say whether he can diagnose its problems. Because it could be anything — a 1972 Datsun B210, for instance.

Why bother dealing in hypotheticals, right? I suppose I could be driving a 1972 Datsun B210 that I only think is a 1999 Audi A4, and that “monetary determination of unemployment compensation benefits” form from the Connecticut Department of Labor could be almost anything. Say, a coupon for Hot Pockets.

Long story long (but not as long as it could be, I assure you), I gave up and faxed the first form again as well as a stub showing the taxes that had been deducted, with each photocopied page extravagantly marked up to show my “GROSS” and “NET.” It turns out the problem was not that “the verification receipts don’t show a weekly gross,” as I kept trying to tell the MassHealth people, but that the bizarre, alien Connecticut Department of Labor form had confused the Massachusetts employee who’d rejected it as inadequate. (And then didn’t bother to tell me, but instead apparently sent it away for storage in the Central Filing Unit in the same aisle as the Ark of the Covenant.)

“It’s a different kind of document,” Hernandez said apologetically. “We’re trying to figure it out. We’re going to use the [gross amount] even though it’s a little confusing.”

I was gratified that Karen Greene, identified by Andriopoulos as his boss, returned messages I’d left with her on what she described as a day out of the office. But despite an admission the first worker should have left more comprehensive notes, Greene’s explanation was much the same: MassHealth sees many different kinds of forms, and they can be confusing — even forms from within Massachusetts; and Andriopoulos’ response had been reasonable because he wasn’t even the person I should have been speaking with.

“His unit just processes the applications, it doesn’t handle them,” she said.

Oh.

So ultimately I got MassHealth, and I will use those benefits almost immediately to see if a doctor can remove the apparently permanent look of confounded horror etched into my face by this experience. It’s impossible to get around the fact that I sent in precisely the requested government form, it was rejected anyway out of worker confusion and my application was essentially lost. When I sought advice to avoid a repeat of what I had been told was a mistake, no advice was available, but not for any sane reason.

Sure, government documents can be confusing, even to the government, but doesn’t my spurious and 180-degree-wrong rejection — and those of how many others? — kind of fly in the face of the reason for MassHealth in the first place? Namely that if I contracted a disease or got hit by a car, I’d be screwed?

What I heard the state telling me was worse than I’d first thought. The actual message was: We rejected your form because you did something wrong! We can’t tell you why because we weren’t paying attention! Now repeat your actions even though we told you they were wrong! In retrospect, we were wrong.

“I apologize, and we will handle this better in the future,” Greene said.

I accepted the apology. But as I ended the call, I kept thinking: You will?

How?