A health-care parable from a post office line
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It's 3:48 p.m. on a recent Wednesday at the local post office.
I walk in and take the second spot in line. Within two minutes, there are six more people behind me.
The man being helped by the only employee on duty is clearly in the middle of a mailing extravaganza. Feeling nebby, I lean in to steal a glance at his work.
He's sending out dozens of floppy disks from a law firm, each in its own cardboard envelope, each with its own certificate of mailing obtained from the clerk. He assembles a few of these at a time and hands them back to the clerk to be bundled into stacks of overnight-mail packages.
A few other employees are visible at work back behind a partial wall. One of them emerges, eyes our line and continues her task. Moments later, she walks by again and calls out, "Anyone picking up a package?"
The lucky man behind me dashes forward. The rest of us sigh, and the law firm guy, his arms flying through his Herculean labors, looks up and says, "I'm so sorry!"
We smile and assure him it's not his fault.
It's 3:55, and the second clerk asks again whether anyone's picking up a package.
We all shake our heads, but an enterprising woman from the end of the line strides up to the plexiglass window and says, "I'm here for a passport photo."
The clerk says something about that being done for the day. This is when I start taking notes.
"I just need a 2x2 photo -- I've done the paperwork." She presses her application form flat against the service window and pleads. "It's for an educational exchange ..."
Both clerks tell her the employee who does photos is gone for the day and they don't know how to "run the machine."
"But it's not 4 o'clock yet," the would-be customer says. "Your sign says you do these till 4."
The employee who does them will be back tomorrow, they tell her.
"What time will photos be available until on Thursday?" the woman asks, with far less sarcasm in her voice than I'd have used. "I'm running here from work! Why do you advertise a service you won't provide?"
She turns to go, and the law firm guy says "I'm sorry" again to no one in particular.
It's a pretty sorry situation. The second clerk, briefly detained by the passport drama, has disappeared, and all seven of us remaining customers wait behind the floppy-disk brigade.
Someone says -- OK, it was me -- "And we want these people to run health care."
But the problem isn't the people, really. Some are conscientious, some half-hearted -- like any group of employees anywhere, depending on the moment, the weather and whether our team won the night before.
The problem is the system. With no profit to be earned, there's no incentive to tailor products and services to the public's needs. There's no manager to make sure any waiting customer's money flows into the till.
New technologies have undermined this federal behemoth's mission, and more agile competitors have eroded its former market dominance. What can Brown do for you? A lot, actually. Or you can pick FedEx or DHL.
If I'd had my wits about me, I'd have told that disappointed woman to try AAA or FedEx Office or just about any drug store, all of which do passport photos at lower cost.
About the only service left exclusively to the United States Postal Service is mail delivery, the costs of which are driven up by junk mail and the income from which cannot support the top-heavy, legacy-laden system.
Similarly, the true cost of health care is hidden from most consumers' view. Employer-provided health benefits are a distorting legacy of the post-World War II era, when wage and price controls forced employers to disguise higher salaries as health benefits.
Even today, people discuss health benefits as if they were freebies from the boss, instead of personal income that they could control and get more out of.
As broken as the current health system is, with one or two insurance providers dominating any geographic region, how could anyone think the remedy is to take the worst of it -- the monopolistic, unresponsive, bureaucratic worst -- and barricade it behind state or federal government?
All you need to drive the point home is a little quality time in any government facility. Twenty minutes after I got in line, I was served, and the postal employee was polite, professional and thorough.
Not so for the woman seeking passport photos. But at least she still has options.
First Published June 1, 2009 12:00 am