What if Car Insurance was like Health Insurance?

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A letter from my insurance company, Blue Wheeled, brings terrible news. They rejected my claim, saying I didn’t receive pre-authorization for a long road-trip.

I call them, pressing button after button through their robotic call system in a desperate attempt to speak with a human. When I finally reach a person, she’s not qualified to answer my specific coverage questions, instead referring me to my insurance policy. I peruse the document for a moment, but the 20 pages of fine print in legalese makes me want to pull my hair out.

This whole process feels absurd: after my mechanic prescribes the proper tire fix, why must I then convince the completely unrelated people at Blue Wheeled that this fix is an appropriate use for the money I pay them? It feels especially crazy since the insurance company isn’t even licensed to practice mechanics!

The horror story all started when I was on a weekend drive and my car blew a flat. I swerved off the road, banging my front right bumper on the guardrail. It was messy and my car clearly needed mechanical attention.

Fortunately, Joe’s Urgent Auto Care was only a block off the freeway, so I enlisted the help of some kind passers by and we pushed the car. All the while I was blaming myself for the tire blowout: I knew it was going to happen and had wanted new tires at my last checkup 6 months ago, but had kept driving on the old ones because my insurance plan only covers new tires every 60,000 miles. Their exclusion forced me into a tough and emotionally taxing decision where I’d chosen inexpensive danger over high-priced safety.

I gave Joe’s receptionist my insurance card and asked whether Joe was in-network. “Sorry,” the receptionist said. “We don't take that insurance.” While the news was bad, at least I knew enough to ask: last time I’d accidentally gone to an out-of-network mechanic and it had cost five times as much!

I called a tow, all the while cursing my insurance company. I hate them, I hate them, I hate them. Why do I even have this plan? Oh yeah—I had been with Seatana, but they stopped covering Dave, the mechanic I'd been seeing for years. I had developed a trusting relationship with the guy—he’s a caring mechanic who tells me the honest truth—so I switched insurance banks instead of switching mechanics. Switching was a doozy: I had to fill out a ton of paperwork, and lickety-split, too, because you’re only allowed to change your car insurance once per year during a pre-specified window. I tried to remember my car’s whole history: everywhere it had been, everything it had done. It hadn’t been easy, but it had been worth it to keep Dave as my primary car mechanic.

Dave's shop isn't open on the weekend, so I stop by first thing Monday morning. I'm in luck, Dave's first appointment is a no-show and the receptionist is able to squeeze me in. Dave inspects my car, takes a few measurements, and comes back with his diagnosis: “The axle is slightly bent. We’re probably going to have to replace it. But in the meantime, let’s just see if realigning the tires solves the problem.”

I gave him a quizzical look.

He sighed and explained: “Because realigning the tires is cheaper than replacing the axle, insurance requires me to try realigning, even when it’s clearly not going to work. They don’t want to shell out the big bucks if they can avoid it.”

I shook my head and asked if there were any other options.

“Unless you want to pay out of pocket…” he began, but I stopped him. See: while the cash price is often much lower than going through insurance, this year is the year I decided to pack together all my mechanic bills to try to hit my deductible. It seems bad for my car’s health that I have to pack together operations based on year, but that’s the way insurance works. With no other option, I capitulated to insurance’s requirements and Dave replaced the flat and realigned the tires, saying, “Well, if that doesn’t fix the problem in two weeks, come back in and I can fix the axle. In the meantime, I’m sorry but you’ll just have to push the car.”

As I’m leaving, Dave’s receptionist tells me I have 50% co-insurance on the new tire. I nod and say thank you, thinking to myself that I never really know what that means, except that it almost seems to cost the same amount as the full cash price of the tires. Either way I pay up.

So I hobbled around, pushing my car for the next two weeks. I pushed it to the bumper repair specialist Dave recommended, who for some reason charges three times as much as a general mechanic. It takes me three visits to diagnose the bumper issue, during which I find myself constantly asking “It’s a banged-up bumper: it’s got to be a common problem. Why am I enduring so many expensive diagnostics when the answer is clear?”

In the course of our visits, the bumper repair guy refers me to another specialist who focuses on checking gas tanks for leaks. I protest that the gas tank is nowhere near the front bumper, but he insists on the exam anyway. I call Dave over and over to ask his opinion, but can’t get past the front-desk staff since Dave was always busy working on a car. Frustrated, I leave a message, and receive a rushed call from him three days later. On the call, Dave says the guy was likely just trying to fill his referral quota. When I first hear this, I’m angry. But my anger quickly turns to sadness when Dave explains that the bumper mechanic isn’t himself a bad guy. He’s just hemmed in by the requirements of the insurance system, who have determined that banged up bumpers and gas leaks usually go together. If he weren’t so restricted by the big mechanics corporations, he’d practice mechanizing the way mechanics used to.

The two weeks finally up, I took the car back to Dave’s for its axle fix. After driving on the new axle for three days I leave a message for Dave to ask about a slight shaking of the steering wheel. After waiting another four days for a response, Dave gives me good news: a shaking steering wheel is a common recovery symptom that will go away in time. The bad news? My mounting fear during the 4 day waiting period; fear that could have been abated by a two minute phone call. The worse news? This was when the rejection letter from my insurance finally arrived.

6 months later, this whole process is all but gone from my mind when I notice a squealing sound coming from my brakes. I feel an immediate twist in my stomach. I’m near Dave’s, so I stop by. The receptionist asks “Do you have an appointment?” and when I say “no”, she looks at me like I’m a crazy person. Turns out Dave’s schedule is booked 30 days in advance. Alternatively, if I want to see someone now, I can see a mechanic’s assistant instead of a real mechanic. After waiting for hours, the mechanic’s assistant takes some measurements, changes some fluids, and says I should return when Dave is available. On the walk out I stop at the receptionist to schedule. Turns out she had misspoken: since it’s mid-November, Dave is booked through the end of the year by people wanting to cram in appointments before their deductible resets.

When I return months later to finally get the brakes checked, Dave starts out with 50 questions unrelated to the brakes. For each question, he documents every answer minutely so the next mechanic looking at my file can look back at his notes. I joke with him that the next mechanic won’t have time to look back at the documentation because they’ll be too busy documenting their own minutiae, and he agrees, but explains that he must document these questions properly or insurance won’t pay.

Dave checks out the brakes and diagnoses the problem as leaking brake fluid. He writes me a prescription for brake fluid, to be added daily. “Can’t we just fix the leak?” I ask. He sighs. There could be a multitude of reasons why it’s leaking which would take months of testing to diagnose. Even if we did find the problem, the repair would be an considered an 'elective' procedure. The leak wasn’t making the car undrivable and brake fluid prescriptions are shown to be very effective in my case. This means I would be on the hook for most of the cost. I suddenly understood why so many cars are on prescriptions these days.

When I stop by the auto parts store to pick up the fluid, I learn that some brands are much more expensive because they’re advertised on TV. I’d call Dave to ask if generic is good enough, but I know he won’t respond in time. So I grab my smartphone and search WebMech instead; as though that’s a replacement for real mechanical advice. A surprisingly small amount of research reveals that my specific car has an endemic brake problem based on its make and model. Dave probably didn’t catch it because he only has eight minutes per car, so he didn’t have time to dive into my car’s specific history and instead treated it just like every other car he sees.

After all this kerfuffle, my beloved car is finally fixed. It’s a celebration dampened only by the terrible process. I look into car insurance a bit more: is there anything better than my plan? Sure it gets me unlimited gas from premium Exoff-Immobile stations with only a $10 co-pay, but I also pay $1000 each month in premiums no matter how much gas I use. I’d never use a thousand dollars of gas per month, so I look into paying for gas myself at an out-of-network station. For some reason that costs $500 per tank. ‘Who pays these prices?’ I think to myself.

In shopping around I decide to talk to my neighbor, Fred, who's crashed his Ferrari three times in the past year. Surely he knows a thing or two about working with insurance. I'm shocked to find out that Fred pays the same premiums I do, despite the fact that this was my first accident in 5 years. "The insurance companies aren't allowed to discriminate against people who might be higher risk", Fred tells me with a grin. I'm not smiling. Somehow I know the cost of his reckless driving is being subsidized on the backs of responsible citizens like myself.

Completely fed up, I decide to give up on the insurance system completely. Since it never seems to work anyway, I switch to the highest deductible plan I can that covers accidents only. Then I take the money I save on monthly premiums and start paying cash for my regular maintenance. I'm surprised to hear that a lot of mechanics prefer to take cash, and many even offer a discount to cash payers like myself. It turns out that taking cash saves them the hassle of submitting claims to insurance companies, and means they get the money at the time of service instead of 90 days later.

Some cash pay mechanics are even starting to move to a full subscription model, called Direct Mechanic Care. Because I'm responsible about keeping up with routine maintenance, I decide to enroll and try it out. Now I pay a flat monthly fee that covers anything short of wrecks. I see my mechanic as often as I want with no restrictions. I go in for frequent check-ups on little things before they get bigger, and enjoy long visits that allow us to dive into all of my concerns about my car. My DMC mechanic is also able to negotiate reasonable cash rates for gas with a national chain, so now I pay about $3 per gallon out of pocket at every fill-up. What a deal!

I sometimes think back to the mess I endured and wonder why so many people still put up with it. I’m spending less money and getting way better results! I’ve even recommended to Dave that he switch from the insurance system to DMC, and he’s in the process of doing so; excited to leave insurance’s bloat and return to the way mechanics was meant to be practiced. Who knew that paying the actual cost for things directly to my mechanic could make it so much better?

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