Car insurance as health insurance

X-ray of my left collarbone, showing clean breaks in two places
Published 2022-12-12

Last month I wrote that:

…my car insurance company was a better health insurance company than my health insurance company! That might be worth another blog post…

So it’s worth writing down, to the best of my memory 8½ years later, what that experience was like.

To recap:

While I was riding my bike home in South Waterfront, a driver opened his car door into the bike lane, knocking me off my bike. I broke my collarbone and damaged my bike (and other things). I got myself to the OHSU emergency room, which turned into a really pointless visit; the only results were:

  1. a sling for my arm
  2. OTC strength ibuprofen
  3. a referral to an orthopedist

The “fun” began the next day when I called my health insurance company to make a claim for the ER visit. They told me, sagely, to make a claim with my car insurance company.

Me: “But I wasn’t driving my car…I was on my bike.”

Them: “They won’t care, and they excel at this kind of thing.”

And boy howdy were they right. It was educational in several ways:

First, every health claim I made — for the ER visit, for the follow-up with a primary care doc, for all the orthopedists, for followup imaging, for physical therapy — they paid promptly, in full, no deductible, with minimum fuss. This has never happened to me with any health insurance company ever. Not even the “gold-plated” insurance I had at Mercy Corps.

Seond, I had one guy — let’s call him “Cliff” (not his real name) — who was My Guy for getting insurance stuff done. If I had a question I could call Cliff. Directly. On his direct line. Sometimes Cliff would even call me, for example to remind me to submit a receipt or something. I seldom had to walk through a phone tree to resolve any kind of problem. I could just call Cliff. (Sidenote: I can’t remember whether Cliff worked for my insurance company, or the other guy’s, or indeed whether we even had different insurance companies. This detail won’t affect the story)

Finally, Cliff just kept handing me money. He had me take my bike to a pre-approved bike shop for an estimate. The damage was bad but I was unprepared for the estimate — which exceeded the actual purchase price of the bike. Cliff didn’t blink. In fact, he kept asking about other stuff, and then bumping the number up.

“You wear glasses, right? Were they damaged? What do those cost? $500”

“Um no I got them online they cost like $100.”

“Well let’s just say $500. What about your helmet? Those things are like $300 right?”

“Um no it was more like $200.”

“OK let’s go with the higher number though.”

Cliff wasn’t just making these numbers up! I didn’t have receipts for much of this stuff, so I’d send him a link to a similar product, and he always chose the highest price.

(This was nothing like dealing with renter‘s insurance when my apartment was broken into, by the way, which says something about the margins on car insurance vs. renters’ insurance.)

Ultimately everything was resolved to better than my satisfaction. I was done with the ortho and PT, my arm worked fine, I had rebuilt my old bike and pocketed the difference. I had friends who counselled I should claim loss of income but truth told I didn’t lose any. I had a new helmet and glasses and a few other small things. Done, case closed.

Then, about six months later, totally unprompted, Cliff sent me a check. Not a huge check, but big enough to pay my income tax for the quarter. Big enough not to ignore. It was obvious why I was receiving the check — it said, in large letters on the check itself, that if I cashed it I was waiving any further claims forever. So I called Cliff:

“So Cliff, if I cash this check that means I can’t ever sue that driver, right?”

“Yep that’s the idea.”

“That’s fine, but I have to ask: why did you service this claim this way? I mean you just kept shoveling money at me.”

“Listen, I specialize in injury claims, that’s why your file was in my box. My usual claim starts at six figures. Many of them run into the millions. For just the injury part. So when I get a claim that’ll wind up under ten grand, I just want to get it out of the way. It isn’t worth my time to chase down a few hundred bucks, or to get the lawyers up in it.”

[record scratch]

Stop and think what Cliff was telling me: the usual car crash with an injury causes hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars of damage. I broke my collar bone. It messed up a month or two of my life. Most people who are injured in a car crash are messed up for life. If they survive.

That is how dangerous a car is. That is why I won’t talk to you on the phone while one of us is driving. That is why I always drive such that I can stop instantly, for example if someone steps in front of my car. In a fraction of a second, a car driven inattentively can ruin someone‘s life forever.


Postscript

A few years after all this happened, I relayed the story of my crash to a lawyer acquaintance who works at a firm specializing in bike vs. car crashes. They said I did everything wrong with that crash, and that I was very lucky to have had such a good outcome. It would have gone very differently if my claim were handled by an adjuster who specializes in fender-benders, or if the driver hadn’t immediately claimed responsibility (which he did), or if I had received a spinal or brain injury that took several months to emerge. Here’s what my acquaintance told me I should have done:

If you are injured at all, even a minor injury, or the bike is damaged seriously, lie down in the street and ask a bystander to call 911. Stop traffic if necessary. Do not move. Make the EMTs move you, on a spinal board if necessary. It is OK in this circumstance to be a nuisance.

Make sure you get a police report. If at all possible, try to make sure the driver is cited. (But obviously: never argue with a cop!)

Take an ambulance to the hospital (I let the driver take me to the tram which I rode up to the ER on Pill Hill! Stupid!) Everyone in authority takes an ambulance ride seriously, including the ER staff who are more likely to expedite your treatment — they prioritize people who arrive on a spinal injury board in the back of an ambulance over those folks who just walk in with an obvious broken bone. (I waited four hours in the ER for my ibuprofen and sling.)

Immediately call your car and health insurance company. Be ready to call a lawyer, especially if the driver is belligerent or you don‘t have a police report.