Health insurance companies send me birthday greetings so why I am nervous?

I'm turning 65 soon and the only people who have sent me birthday greetings so far are private, for-profit health insurance companies.

While I have yet to receive a single card from any friend or family member, I did get nice letters from Humana, AARP, HAP, CIGNA, Wisconsin Physicians Service (who?), United of Omaha Life Insurance (what are these guys doing selling health insurance anyway?), Bankers Life and Casualty (same goes with these guys) and a guy named Keith.

Some of these companies have even sent me more than one greeting. If they do that to everybody turning 65, it could get expensive. To tell you the truth, these mailings were more on the order of business solicitations than birthday greetings. They all wanted to sell me supplemental insurance to cover what Medicare doesn't.

In the first mailing I got from Humana, they said, “This birthday is a special milestone.” They said it was time for me to make an important decision about my future health coverage! (The exclamation point is theirs, not mine.)

I guess out of concern for what I might “miss out” on, my concerned friends at Humana wrote me again. This time they said my 65th birthday “brings a special opportunity.” With HumanaChoice PPO (“preferred provider organization”), I will get “the peace of mind I deserve.”

Definitely agreeing with that, I looked up Humana's ratings in my latest Consumer Reports magazine. It turns out that while Humana is great at sending out multiple birthday greetings, they ain't so hot when it comes to “choice of doctors” and “billing.” In those categories, Humana was rated Worse Than Average. Overall, this insurance giant came in 35th out of 41 rated PPOs. That certainly didn't give me any peace of mind.

Actually, there seemed to be a trend emerging. Those health insurance companies who send out the most birthday greetings did the poorest in the Consumer Reports ratings. For the record, the insurance company that AARP fronts for — UnitedHealthCare — came in 39th out of 41. Just thought, you'd like to know.

To their credit, though, AARP did have the sexiest mailing of them all. Lots of happy, smiling, good-looking, and healthy old people. The big print was nice and very important for us progressive lens-ers. And charts. Wow. One of them even explained all about the three AARP options for Medicare Part D, the prescription drug program that turned out to be a huge boondoggle for the pharmaceutical companies and a budget buster for seniors who fell into that famous donut hole.

So there are the AARP Saver, Preferred and Enhanced plans. AARP says you can “choose the plan that best fits your needs.” The problem is they don't tell what you should do if the plan that best fits your needs is the one you can least afford.

So the free market scores huge points for sending out the most and fanciest birthday greetings when Americans turn 65. For the record, I should mention that the government program — Medicare — only bothered to send me one letter. And that just said, “Welcome to Medicare.” I wished my great-grandson could have gotten a letter like that when he was born, though.

The booklet the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services sent out wasn't all that fancy, but it was very informative and easy reading. And I'm not just talking about the print size. I was able to figure out in no time exactly what my benefits were going to be.

And while the free market is a pretty good when it comes to sheer volume of mail (and TV commercials and magazine advertisements and billboard signs and radio spots), that can't do much for saving money for using it where it really counts — namely, providing health care services. You know what they say: there ain't no such thing as a free mailing.

The small print made me kinda nervous, too. Like on the front cover of the Humana letter it says I will have the “freedom to choose any doctor, specialist or hospital with no referral required.”

But if you bring the other side of the letter closer to the light and squint a bit, you will read that “sometimes the selection of in-network providers is limited in certain geographic areas or in some specialties. If the network in your area doesn't offer the specialist you need, you MAY (my emphasis, not Humana's) be allowed to go to non-network provider at the in-network rate.”

Smells like they left themselves an out, just in case they might need one. Ya think?

On the other hand, the government-sponsored “Medicare and You” booklet, probably written by some pointy-headed bureaucrat, says in very plain English on page 45, “You can go to any doctor, supplier, hospital, or other facility that is enrolled in Medicare and is accepting new Medicare patients.”

I think that's what even John McCain might call straight talk, with no small print and no legal traps to catch you with.

Now I understand why so many conservatives out there don't want “government” messing with their Medicare.

So if government can do the job for us seniors, just maybe it can do the same for everybody else. Who not give it a try, eh?

What's the worst that can happen? You won't get as much mail as you used to? Hell, I can live with that.