Saturday, December 19, 2009

Coming to Terms With It - Or Maybe Not

In February my employer of sixteen years – the CIGNA insurance company – eliminated my position. This event was hardly a surprise. Sixteen years is a good run at a place like CIGNA. As an executive told me shortly after I was hired, "Well, Bill, you've got the job. Now let's see if you can hold on to it." And so, as I joke to friends, I spent the next sixteen years playing Beat the Reaper, and doing a little work on the side.

So it wasn't a surprise when my number came up and I found myself tossed into that great metaphorical sausage machine called severance. Still it was a shock. I found that I wasn't angry, and I wasn't sad. Occasionally I had twinges of anxiety about the future. But mainly I was just at loose ends. Work had been the main thing in my life (large corporations demand this), and now there was a void on center.

Because I'd been at CIGNA for quite a while, I got a nice severance package – pay continuation for several months, subsidized medical coverage, even a seat at an outplacement agency, where I met people who were angry, sad, and sometimes just in a state of disbelief.

Gradually I began to come to terms with the tectonic shift in my existence, and I even began to discern the outlines of a new life. A rather pleasant life, actually. My retirement savings will be substantially short of plan, and my wife and I are definitely not buying a house in the south of France, but she still has her job. Is it possible that the Great Recession doesn't look like the Great Depression because of the two-income family? After all, lose one job, you still have one left. Just don't lose the second one.

I do want to get a job. I like to work, and we could use the money. The outplacement agency gave us classes, and I enthusiastically threw myself into the job hunt, but gradually, as the weather got warmer this spring, it became clear that I wasn't going to get a job anytime soon. This recognition came slowly, and I had time to come to terms with it. I keep looking, and I think one day I may fall into something.

In the meantime, I've discovered that there's plenty of work in the world, as long as you don't ask to be paid. I started my volunteering back in the winter, working on Michael Turner's campaign for district attorney in Philadelphia. Michael lost in the May primary, but my volunteer career continued to flourish. I became a volunteer runner at Back on My Feet, a running and rehabilitation program for people who live in homeless shelters. Billy, one of our members, recently completed the Philadelphia Marathon. I tutor at Mighty Writers, an after-school program for young students in South Philly.

And, after an interesting internal evolution, I started working for healthcare reform. I was helped in this process by Wendell Potter, an old friend and former chief corporate spokesperson at CIGNA, who started speaking out on healthcare reform in the middle of the year.

It's not easy to say that you spent sixteen years working at something, and that the result was failure. But that was the conclusion I came to. It may be hard for outsiders to understand how strongly we were focused on trying to control costs in health care. Let's face it: We failed. Time for another approach. I came to terms with it.

Still, to paraphrase The Godfather, it was nothing personal; just business. As I said before, I wasn't angry. Then the letter came. Because of my age, when CIGNA eliminated my position it also effectively made me a retiree. So, after a few months on COBRA (COBRA is health insurance for fired people, and the COBRA subsidy was one of the smartest ideas in the stimulus package), I signed up for CIGNA's retiree medical program. It is the only connection that I still have with my former employer.

CIGNA subsidizes a retiree's coverage through a complicated formula. The price was higher than I expected, but much better than the prices on the open market. I came to terms with it.

Then I got the letter. As of January 1, CIGNA is increasing my premium by 48 percent. There's a very complicated explanation for why this is happening. I actually ran the calculation, and it all makes sense, as long as you're living inside that algorithm. I don't live there any more.

I think I'm less annoyed than astonished. And I don't think I'll be coming to terms with this any time soon.