We are blessed with a great many things in Norway, one of them being excellent health service and a government issued health insurance that ensures that you can get affordable treatment regardless of your financial situation. This health insurance also extends to certain circumstances where treatment outside of Norway is necessary, for instance when the patient in question is working for a Norwegian government agency abroad (as I very soon will be).
That being said, we don’t necessarily ace in the bureaucratic process said insurance, especially the abroad version since this is not an automatic process like the regular, domestic health insurance is. You have to send an application – 8 weeks ahead of departure (or at least that is the time frame they provide for processing the application). This is not one but several forms, and they are, as forms tend to be, completely impossible to understand. I generally think of myself as a reasonably bright human being, but when it comes to filling out forms my stupid gene kicks in.
Once the forms are taken care of, you wait. And wait. And wait. And hope. In my case I had called ahead to confirm that my position indeed warranted a positive outcome of the application, so I was not too worried, but it certainly took a while to get the final confirmation.
Now, I’ve been through this process before. When I went to Japan in 2006 as a student, I also had to do the application dance. Back then I received not only the confirmation of the positive outcome of my application, but also a health insurance card of sorts. The kind that has words in English on it. You see, the confirmation letter I received this time is written in Norwegian. The problem is that if the chance arises for me to use my health insurance – say by exploring the inside of a Japanese hospital from a wheeled bed – the likelihood of anyone working at the hospital being able to read the confirmation letter in my native Norwegian is disturbingly slim.
Since I foresaw this complication I decided to give the Welfare State a call, to see if anyone there could tell me whether I’d need a insurance card, or if my assurances to the Japanese doctor that “the Norwegians will pay for it, really!” would do.
I phoned the assumed appropriate agency, and they put me in one of those endless phone queues. You know the kind:
“Thank you for calling Welfare State Health Insurance And Every Other Government Issued Benefit Agency (WSHIAEOGIBA). We are currently experiencing heavy traffic on our phone lines, but one of our operators will get to you as soon as possible. You may also contact us at 800-EXPENSIVEHOTLINE, or visit our web page, www.wshiaeogiba.no.”
Fine, I’ll hold. After about thirty seconds, you think the phone is being answered in the other line. But no…
“Thank you for calling WSHIAEOGIBA. We are currently experiencing heavy traffic on our phone lines, but one of our operators will get to you as soon as possible. You may also contact us at 800-EXPENSIVEHOTLINE, or visit our web page, www.wshiaeogiba.no.”
Yes. I heard you the first time. Thank you very much.
30 new seconds, and…
“Thank you for calling WSHIAEOGIBA. We don’t really care if you have heard this message before, so we will repeat it endlessly. One of our operators might get to you as soon as he is done checking his Facebook updates. You may also contact us at 800-EXPENSIVEHOTLINE, or visit our web page, www.wshiaeogiba.no.”
This cycle repeats itself quite a few times, until you swear the message you hear is something along these lines:
“Thank you for calling WSHIAEOGIBA. We are trying to make you go mad. This is the little voice in your head telling you that you probably should find another way to finance your costly health insurance abroad. If you are still with us after this lengthy wait, we might consider letting you into the exclusive club of people who survived waiting in this phone queue without smashing their phone into the wall, people who thus managed to get to the end of the phone queue to find out if they will get their required insurance. Have you smashed your phone yet? No? If not, press one. Just kidding. One of our operators will get to you soonish. After he is done checking his Facebook updates, of course. He might also check into Twitter while at it. You may also contact us at 800-EXPENSIVEHOTLINE, or visit our web page, www.wshiaeogiba.no.”
Once I finally reached an operator, she was friendly and efficient. I am completely satisfied with my operator-time, except for one small thing: She could not answer my question.
A small digression to explain: A few years ago, the various agencies handling unemployment benefits, pensions, and other social security systems in Norway were morphed into one big agency (the one which my WSHIAEOGIBA is modeled on). The idea was that one agency that covered all the departments would be easier for the users to access than the multitude of agencies of the past. The problem with this vision was that (it seems) no one thought of the fact that the separate agencies were specialized within the field they were handling. The morphed agency consisted of people having worked in the specialized departments, who were now required to know everything about not only their former department, but also about all the others.
Obviously, this was problematic, and the morphed agency (from now on it will again be known in this post as WSHIAEOGIBA) has been the target of many a jolly joke ever since.
Despite this, however, my discovery was that the generalized WSHIAEOGIBA handled the generalization by outsourcing specific issues to other, new, agencies… Thus, my operator informed me that I had to call the Never Heard About Health Something Economy Something (NHAHSES). She provided me with a phone number, and we hung up.
I called the NHAHSES, went through a similar phone line routine, and ended up with an operator telling me she could not answer my question. I had to call NHAHSES Abroad Section, naturally.
So I did. Imagine what happened. Phone line? Yup. Operator able to answer my question? Of course not.
At least this time I was told I was at the right place, but the person/people who could answer my question was in a meeting. Or checking his/her Facebook updates. At any rate, I was instructed to call back in half an hour. Which I did.
This time, I managed to get to an operator fairly quickly, but alas, it was one of the secretaries who only could try her best to transfer my call to the right person, but whose attempts did not lead anywhere. I don’t know if it was the phones (not mine) that failed, the secretary not doing it right or the person at the end of the line checking her Facebook updates, but either way it took three attempts – each time I had to go through the phone queue thing again, mind you – to finally reach the right person. Who managed to tell me that while I did have all the rights I thought I did, they did not have a health insurance card to prove I had such rights. She promised, however, to send a confirmation letter in English, so at least I will have that. And I imagine that working at the embassy will make it easier to contact the embassy in case of emergency.
The whole thing reminds me of the Norwegian folktale “Den syvende far i huset” – “The Seventh Father”, where a tired traveler has to ask each generation of a surprisingly large family for permission to spend the night. While I am all for preserving our folktale tradition, I am not convinced that the welfare system is the best place to do it…