A few weeks back, Sharon Roberts, who had been diagnosed with endometrial cancer last year, tweeted:
@teachdance11: the BRCA gene test is 2 parts. Aetna paid $300 part. Not the $7000 part. Gotta be rich to be in the know
The 55-year-old teacher in Houston was surprised when @aetnahelp, a Twitter account created for customer assistance by the insurance company Aetna, quickly responded.
Through Twitter and subsequent phone calls, Aetna clarified that she didn't need to take the more expensive test, and then figured out that she had been charged double by her hospital for other treatments.
"If I hadn't put out that snarky tweet about the BRCA test back in July, I would have probably just set up a payment plan to the hospital and paid out that bill," she said. The experience appears to bring new meaning to the company's catchy old ads featuring the tagline, "Aetna, I'm glad I met ya!"
The @aetnahelp Twitter feed is an example of how insurance companies are increasing their social media presence to deal with customers. The accounts also help companies manage their brands and do quick damage control for complaints.
The accounts, which include @askanthem, @cignaquestions and several accounts for various Blue Cross Blue Shield companies around the country, are often separate from larger company accounts that focus on marketing and general health care news.
"Social media gives us a tremendous opportunity to learn what the community needs," said Carissa O'Brien, social media director at Aetna.
She works with six people to address the approximately 250 people who seek help through social media with claims or other services each month. O'Brien said the team tries to respond within an hour to users.
Last year, Aetna made news when CEO Mark T. Bertolini engaged in an extended Twitter conversation with colon cancer patient Arijit Guha who said his insurance didn't cover his treatment.
At the end of a publicized debate and Guha's campaign, which he dubbed "Poop Strong," Bertolini directed Aetna to pay Guha's medical bills, and tweeted: "The system is broken, and I am committed to fixing it." Guha died in March.
O'Brien said the social media team learned from the case, and that it eventually reinforced their "commitment to interacting with our customers and members on the channels where they already are."
Guha's case was out of the ordinary. The day-to-day fare doesn't earn personal responses from the CEO. Questions come in about financial woes or health plan coverage. And there are more than a few complaints:
@LadyBrik: Got my insurance/crazy charge worked out, but sadly it was with no help from @askanthem. Bummed I never got my promised call.
@ganne_hanrahan How can @AetnaHelp be the most widely accepted health insurance and still not be in network me (sic) any of my doctors?!
In both cases, the companies responded to these queries with resources or further contact information to resolve the issues.
Though companies are accustomed to fielding feedback and questions from their customers, the public nature of a platform like Twitter or Facebook can also be a call for accountability, said Ini Augustine, head of SocialWise Media Group.
"Social media acts as a public documentation of how you resolve the situation," she said. "It's more than a marketing tool."
Augustine predicts that the implementation of the health law in the coming months will spur the companies to use their platforms further, from organizing Twitter chats to engage customers, to answering questions about Obamacare for a new demographic.
While insurance companies are hoping to connect with their customers through social networks, they aren't dropping call centers. Teeing off on Twitter is often just a gateway for a phone call or private message, since many personal questions can't be answered through a public forum.
Nevertheless, O'Brien said the company learns more about their customers through this medium, allowing them to respond more efficiently, whether it is through the phone or interview.
She said there is an added benefit of using the platform to educate and inform their community about health and wellness, especially during a time of many changes in the health care system. Even so, O'Brien said it's just the beginning.
"If we're looking to focus a 100-plus-year-old company on social media, that's massive cultural change," she said.